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‘Fifty Shades Freed’ and the Absurdist Comic Appeal of the Campy Trilogy

Embracing the unintentional humor of a soft-porn soap opera that is more perverse than perverted

Universal Pictures/Ringer illustration

This week, I sat in a crowded movie theater in Manhattan and basked in the audience’s belly laughter. We were watching the final installment of the Fifty Shades trilogy, Fifty Shades Freed, starring Dakota Johnson as recent college graduate Anastasia Steele and Jamie Dornan as kinky, traumatized billionaire Christian Grey. The film is a gibberish love note to ostentatious wealth, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, leather furniture, reckless contraceptive hygiene, the Pacific Northwest, looking forlorn underneath rainfall showerheads, La Perla lingerie, Rita Ora, light bondage, independent publishing, text messaging, and piano ballads. As a movie, Fifty Shades Freed is charmingly stupid. As a cultural artifact, it’s an escapist commercial for how being rich is awesome that is both totally out of step with the national mood and a cheeky, possibly accidental comment on it. The movie is not nearly as perverted as it would like its audience to think, but it’s far more perverse.

I watched the three Fifty Shades movies in the span of two days, binge-watching the campy romance in an attempt to understand how it became a phenomenon. During this period, I cycled through something like the five stages of grief. First, I simply couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The original Fifty Shades movie is essentially a prolonged melodrama about affirmative consent, as virginal Ana and sadomasochistic Christian negotiate how they should have sex. It was surprisingly progressive—almost—as long as you overlook how Christian ignored all rules of fair negotiation in order to manipulate his young inamorata.

The second stage was anger, provoked by the decidedly less appealing Fifty Shades Darker. The whole story was a gauzy paean to possessive men and passive women. Instead of portraying BDSM as a voluntarily lifestyle choice between consenting adults, it twisted the subculture into a nasty proclivity sprung from child abuse—a tool of coercion rather than experimentation. Around the time Jamie Dornan muttered the iconic line “I’m fifty shades … of fucked up ...” I tried bargaining with myself about how to get out of this assignment. I got depressed about how almost incomprehensibly popular the series was. (The first film made $571 million worldwide, the second did $381.1 million worldwide, and the books had sold more than 100 million copies by 2014.)

Finally, with the third and final installment, I reached blissful, full-hearted acceptance of this soft-porn soap opera. I am now an open fan of Dakota Johnson, who deserves all the credit in the world for transforming Ana into a horny, wry, nearly-recognizable human. (An especially admirable accomplishment considering that Jamie Dornan—who was so good in The Fall!—doesn’t play Christian Grey so much as he plays Jamie Dornan feeling annoyed about having to play Christian Grey.) By the time the allegedly edgy Christian had turned so sentimental that he sang Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed” at a grand piano, I had developed fond feelings for the franchise as a parody of modern romance tropes. After Christian whisks Ana off on a prolonged European honeymoon, she returns to her just-for-fun job to discover she’s been promoted from assistant to fiction editor, complete with a spacious and newly redecorated private office. Christian, who had already purchased her company (thus becoming, in Ana’s words, her “boss’s boss’s boss”), assures her that she rose to her position of prominence through her own sheer hard work alone. At that point, the theater audience clapped with delight. They were in on the joke, so it felt OK to hoot along.

To be transparent: I haven’t read the books. As a rule, I try to read anything that reaches the level of a national sensation, but the one zeitgeisty series I could not bring myself to tackle was E.L. James’s Fifty Shades trilogy. I couldn’t get past the beginning of the first book, terminally put off by the sheer dreadfulness of the writing, too embarrassed by the boing-oing-oinging dick descriptions and Anastasia’s tiresome gee-golly inner monologue.

I do know the books’ unusual trajectory from internet to Hollywood. In 2009, James started writing sexually explicit fan fiction based on Stephenie Meyer’s blockbuster young-adult vampire series, Twilight. She uploaded her story, Master of the Universe, to under the pseudonym “Snowqueens Icedragon.” While immediately popular, Master of the Universe was deemed too racy for the fanfic hub; after it was removed, James set up a website for it called in December 2010. Its popularity caught the attention of an independent publishing house. James retooled and expanded her story, and in 2011, Fifty Shades of Grey came out. It became one of the fastest-selling books for adults, ever.

The idiosyncratic, DIY backstory explains how the movies turned out to be so odd. James retained an unusual amount of creative control over the film adaptations of her novels, which led to well-documented creative squabbles with the first film’s director, Sam Taylor-Johnson. Hired gun James Foley (Glengarry Glen Ross) directed both sequels, and James wrote the sequel screenplays with her husband, screenwriter Niall Leonard. The original Fifty Shades film, while silly, elevated its source material by turning it into beautifully-shot screwball trash, preposterous but deft. Without Taylor-Johnson, James steered the second and third films into full camp swamp. There’s no plot, just stuff happening: scorned lovers menace, a helicopter crashes, Rita Ora changes her wig. A cheating subplot is introduced and then never resolved. Many different expensive forms of transportation are taken. There’s an uncomfortably shallow, abrupt indictment of Detroit’s foster-care system. It’s a mess.

But, perhaps accidentally, the last film is an especially juicy, twisted fairy tale for our time. Christian Grey has, since the first film, exhibited notable similarities to Donald Trump. He’s a prickly, egotistical, germaphobe billionaire with a chip on his shoulder about his background, a reputation for ruthlessness and weird behavior around women, and a penchant for elaborate displays of wealth. (He also lives in a giant skyscraper with his name on it.) In Fifty Shades Freed, there are several shots of Dakota Johnson styled strikingly like Melania, in pantsuits and stilettos and zippered sheath dresses, eyes hidden under sunglasses and expertly styled brunette tresses. Ana asserts her dominance over a sultry, long-legged blonde would-be usurper with more than a passing resemblance to Ivanka.

The fun-house mirror Trump imagery should’ve soured Fifty Shades Freed for me, but instead it added an extra jolt of escapist pleasure. In this crackpot fictional world, the greatest danger the controlling, ultra-wealthy man poses is to himself, and his dark-haired, much-younger wife’s enjoyment of his largesse may be retrograde, but she is ultimately the person, in the film’s own terms, “topping from the bottom.”

The film takes two archetypes that seem all too familiar right now—domineering alpha mogul, prim trophy wife—and, through its own aggressive absurdity, winks at how goofy these roles are in the first place.

The whole thing is, in typical, blowsy Fifty Shades fashion, spectacularly unsubtle and possibly unintentional, but it hits at the heart of the series’ appeal: When presented with a nonsensical yarn about the bliss of yielding your life to a despotic, damaged jetsetter, there’s no response more of-the-moment than to sit back and laugh.