Fifty Shades of Grey, the movie adaptation of E.L. James’s best-selling porn novel, screened for the press last week at Showplace ICON, in a room jammed with feverish women. But I wanted to see it again in IMAX, on a seven-story screen, because I was curious whether the movie could be blown up any bigger than it already has been. Every opinion writer in America has something to say about Fifty Shades—Newsweek has even published a special issue, “Fifty Shades Phenomenon: Exploring the Sexual Revolution,” which promises to take readers inside the secret world of BDSM. You can stroll into Target now and buy the official Fifty Shades of Grey lubricant and Fifty Shades of Grey vibrator. The hype is getting bigger and bigger, the tension building up inside me, and oh God, I think I’m going to . . .
Come now, you didn’t really think I was going to finish that sentence, did you? We still have some decorum around here. Besides, for all the heavy breathing about kinky sex hitting the mainstream, Fifty Shades of Grey is an R-rated studio release from Universal Pictures, with no onscreen genitalia or even onscreen orgasms. If you want to see people actually copulating, watch a European film; I’ve long since given up trying to figure out a nation that’s hopelessly, pathetically obsessed with sex and yet still can’t portray it on a movie screen. Christian Grey, the gorgeous young billionaire at the center of the novel, was sexually abused as a minor and spends the entire story trying to convince Anastasia Steele, a naive and virginal college student, to be his sexual submissive. But Christian’s hang-ups can’t compare with those of the people eating up this movie.
I’ve never done S-M, but I must be some kind of masochist, because I read all 500 poorly written pages of Fifty Shades of Grey. The first chapter is almost criminally stupid: Ana, who’s about to graduate from Washington State University Vancouver with a BA in English literature, gets dragooned by her flu-ridden roommate, Kate, to drive to Seattle and fill in for her interviewing Grey for their school newspaper. Supposedly Kate has been negotiating for months to land the interview, yet Ana arrives at the sleek steel-and-glass headquarters of Grey’s telecommunications empire without having done the barest research on Grey or even having read Kate’s typed list of questions. She makes an ass of herself in the interview, but of course Grey is charmed because she’s such a sweet young thing. Back in Vancouver, Kate has recovered sufficiently to throw her arms around Ana, and before long Grey starts appearing at Ana’s elbow, at one point stopping in at the hardware store where she works to buy rope, plastic tape, and other supplies for his unspecified hobby.
Fifty Shades began as a piece of Internet fan fiction for the vampire romance Twilight, and it reads as if it were written in a busy Starbucks by someone typing a hundred words a minute. Ana is an idiotic narrator: character details are repeated to the point of inanity (I lost count of how many times Grey’s pajama bottoms hang sexily off his hips), and despite her love of Thomas Hardy, her own psychological observations are painfully clumsy (“Holy cow . . . my mouth drops open, my subconscious is in shock”). Eventually James changed the character names and posted the story on her own site; when publishers came calling, she split the epic story—totaling some 1,650 pages—into three chunks, the first of which, Fifty Shades of Grey, has currently sold more than 100 million copies. Now that the movie has grossed more than $239 million worldwide in its first five days of release, a full trilogy is inevitable: Fifty Shades Darker will begin filming in June for a 2016 release, with Fifty Shades Freed to follow. This is going to be the biggest franchise of all time, a virtual “Lord of the Cock Rings.”
Fortunately for moviegoers, screenwriter Kelly Marcel has jettisoned the excruciating narration and mined Ana and Christian’s insipid, incessant flirtation for the cleverest dialogue. Parts of the novel made me laugh out loud, though the writing was so weak that I could never be sure the comedy was intentional; director Sam Taylor-Johnson, best known for her John Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy, has seized on the more absurd aspects of the book, and her movie sometimes comes across as a satire of modern romance. At one point Ana (Dakota Johnson) and Christian (Jamie Dornan) sit across a table in his red-lit conference room, negotiating the contract between dominant and submissive that he insists she sign before they start horsing around in his BDSM rumpus room. “Find anal fisting,” says Ana, going over the document with a pencil. “Strike it out.” She also rules out vaginal fisting and genital clamps; as they work, two Nordic blond beauties on his staff pad in silently to serve them glasses of white wine.
Thank God for the contract negotiation, because America probably isn’t ready for an IMAX experience that includes a seven-story close-up of a fist jammed up someone’s ass. In fact America isn’t really ready for BDSM at all—the sex play in Fifty Shades of Grey is relatively tame stuff, just enough to be titillating but no more than that, like a Disneyland ride adapted from Venus in Furs. At one point Christian turns Ana over his knee for a bare-assed spanking of exactly three slaps (in the novel, it’s 18); later he uses a riding crop to smack her on the palm, abdomen, and pudenda (the latter implied and offscreen), and in the climactic encounter, presented as the extreme outer limits of human sexual experience, Ana takes six lashes on the butt from a leather flogger. There are no black hoods, no ball gags, no butt plugs, no nipple clamps, no urinating or defecation. When Ana sees a mild Internet image of a woman bound and kneeling, she slams down the cover of her laptop in disgust.
Even the vanilla sex in Fifty Shades of Grey is circumscribed by the usual Hollywood prudery, to skirt the NC-17 rating that would have kept the movie out of multiplexes. In the couple’s first sex scene, the camera pans up to the ceiling just as Ana is about to come, and Taylor-Johnson cuts to the morning after. In another scene the two lovers go at it doggie style, and again the act is cut short for a scene of Ana and Christian cuddling in bed afterward. For a movie written and directed by women, Fifty Shades is still weirdly faithful to the male perspective that governs most movie sex; the majority of shots show Ana writhing around naked, though the majority of the audience will likely be women who’d rather get an eyeful of Christian. Par for the course is the scene in which Christian prepares to give Ana head but his mother (Marcia Gay Harden) knocks on the bedroom door. Ironically, the movie itself lacks a climax; the story simply stops short at the point where James divided her gargantuan manuscript between book one and book two. During the press screening there was a giant squawk from the women in the audience as the credits rolled, leaving the drama between the lovers unresolved.
Their frustration became my own a few days later, when I went to see The IMAX Experience at City North 14, on a Sunday morning at 10:30 AM, and found myself the only person in a 369-seat theater. For a while I toyed with the idea of pulling my coat up over my lap and pleasuring myself during one of the sex scenes; you couldn’t ask for a better writing hook, and Pee-wee Herman would be green with envy. Unfortunately my scheme was thwarted when a trio of young women filed in during the opening credits and sat down a few rows in front of me, looking a little uneasy to be watching the film with a lone middle-aged man taking notes on a legal tablet. What a sorry state of affairs for moviegoers: all we want is a little coitus, but all we get is interruptus.