This review is also up at Channel 24. However, since I wrote it rather late at night, soon after seeing the film, there are quite a few grammatical errors on my Channel 24 version, which hopefully I caught for this slight revised review.
But no, my opinion on the movie has hardly softened over the past few days so the general gist is much the same...
What it's about
Following on from the events of Fifty Shades of Grey, Anastasia and Christian try to give their relationship another chance, even as obstacles – both inside and out – threaten to tear them apart.
What we thought
In my review for the film, I went through some lengths to defend Fifty Shades of Grey as a film that never really had a chance to transcend its dodgy source material, but one that gave it the old college try anyway. Director, Sam Taylor-Wood gave the film a sense of style that elevated the clumsy trashiness of its source material, while Dakota Johnson's wry, nicely modulated performance undercut the sheer absurdity of everything else going around her. Even Kelly Marcel's script improved somewhat on E.L. James' largely atrocious dialogue.
(For reference sake, I should point out that I haven't read the books in full but I have sampled a chapter or two of them to get an idea of what the fuss was about. And yes, that included some of the naughty bits, which were easy enough to find because, like any R-rated action film from the '80s or '90s, they - or at least some of them - were situated smack in the middle of the story.)
Fifty Shades Darker, however, isn't so much “darker” as it is much, much, much “crappier”. Anything that even remotely worked about the first film was largely removed for the second film and what was already bad in Fifty Shades of Grey was only amplified in its followup. That it's total softcore-porny trash goes without saying, but that it doesn't even work on that level tells you everything you need to know about just how bad the film is.
Director James Foley was once known as the man who directed the undeniably excellent, if perhaps overly alpha-male, Glengary Glen Ross, but the only feat he has accomplished here is turning the Fifty Shades movies into something every bit as bad as the first one should have been but somehow wasn't. His direction here is lifeless and phoned in with neither the zip and vitality of Glengary Glen Ross or even the sheen of Taylor-Wood's take on the first part of the trilogy. Also, though I do wonder if the film was simply badly projected at the screening I attended, I also noticed a badly lit, monochromatic murkiness to the film – that was actually at its worst during those all-important sex scenes.
Worse even than Foley's hack job, though, is the jawdroppingly awful script by none other than Ms. James' husband, Niall Leonard. Allegedly, James came to blows a few times with the people behind the film adaptation of her first novel but that amazingly resulted in a Fifty Shades movie that actually had a bit of wit and self-awareness to it. It wasn't great by any means but compare it to the leaden naffness of the presumably loyal Mr James' script and it becomes clear just how much some good old creative tension can actually help in some cases.
The dialogue is even more ear-scrapingly awful than last time around and the plot has none of the simple straightforwardness of the first film; instead dropping in one irrelevant plot point after another, each adding up to a film that goes nowhere very, very slowly. Yes, there is a major change or two to the central relationship but Christian Grey remains such a skeevy, borderline sociopathic creep (albeit slightly less so as the film progresses) that nothing about that relationship made any sense in the first place. And this time around the actors do nothing to move things along, as Dornan seems as lost as ever in his utterly thankless role, while Johnson looks for all the world like someone desperate to move onto something better.
Ultimately, though, the big problem at the heart of this whole enterprise is that the Fifty Shades books are first, foremost and entirely smut – or, if you prefer, porn or erotica, depending on your point of view. All the bits with the characters and the plot are really there for no real purpose other than to ramp up and build tension towards the BDSM-inflected smuttiness that has clearly struck the, um, correct chord with millions of readers around the globe, and, for a while at least, launched erotic literature firmly into the mainstream. The films, however, never really had the chance to work on this level as there was never a chance that sex scenes with the level of explicit detail depicted in the books could ever find their way into a mainstream Hollywood film.
While the first film did its best to work its way around this by paying a lot of attention to its sex scenes, which were undeniably fairly tame but also – perhaps less undeniably – fairly effective in their softcore titillation, the second film comes across as totally uncommitted to its major selling point, with scenes that are poorly lit (though again, that may just have been the projection at my particular screening), rushed and almost perfunctory in their presentation. They're not totally lacking in lukewarm eroticism, I suppose, and the two stars provide plenty of eye candy for all kinds of viewers (the classically handsome Dornan is clearly the draw here for the film's target audience but the hardly unattractive Johnson shows the most skin) but they're certainly not reason enough to sit through the other 110 minutes of pure, unadulterated tosh.
I know, I know, this film is going to clean up at the box office regardless of what I or other critics says about it but, honestly, are there not far, far better romantic films out there to get you in the Valentine's Day spirit (let alone the Valentine's Day mood)? I mean, not Valentine's Day, the movie, of course, but whether it be classics like Casablanca and When Harry Met Sally or even more dubious but perfectly effective fare like any of the three thousand Nicholas Sparks adaptations out there, your options are hardly so limited that you need to turn to something as poor and as wrongheaded as Fifty Shades Darker to get your romance kicks.
Amazingly, though, this is still better and funnier than Fifty Shades of Black. But, then, what isn't?