Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson in Fifty Shades of Grey
Credit: Chuck Zlotnick

Breaking news: Many people race through the book Fifty Shades of Grey for the pictures—the pictures in our heads. Author E L James may not be much of a prose stylist, but she can write an effectively dirty, hot, easy-to-read, complicated-to-accessorize sex scene when she puts her mind to it. James throws in descriptions of bondage, submission, foreplay, cosmic orgasms, private helicopters, and fine white wine. And minus the boring bits about private helicopters and tedious wine -sipping, it’s all tatty, arousing fun. Mind-boggling book sales for James’ enthusiastic efforts, especially among mature, self-actualized women, suggest that I am not alone in my private enjoyment of such engorged, erotic semi-literature.

The movie Fifty Shades of Grey is considerably better written than the book. It is also sort of classy-looking, in a generic, TV-ad-for-bath-oil way. Dakota Johnson, who plays the virgin English-literature major Anastasia Steele, and Jamie Dornan, who plays Christian Grey, the wildly rich and sexually…particular business titan who wants Miss Steele in his playroom, are exceedingly attractive actors with enviably supple bodies well suited to nakedness. And really, under the circumstances, movable parts matter more than acting skills.

The production is also oddly sedate—the most polite aspirational romance between a screwed-up prince and girlish princess ever to include loving close-ups of dominance-and-submission sex toys. Presumably the look-but-don’t-pant tone of the storytelling was negotiated among the book’s author, director Sam (as in Samantha) Taylor-Johnson, screenwriter Kelly Marcel, and various producers and studio types; the movie version appears to be aimed at a younger consumer crowd than -the readers (albeit a crowd qualified for R-rated entertainment). In any event, the result is confounding, leaving both those coming to the Fifty Shades phenomenon for the first time as well as those who have read the book to wonder, for different reasons, Where’s the beef?

I don’t think this is entirely the inevitable result of coaxing an R-rated movie out of an X-rated book. True, nobody in the movie has visible genitals; Christian in particular seems to do a whole lot of stuff in the playroom with his shirt off but his pants on, which cannot be comfortable for such an active young man. But even more frustrating to voyeurs, nobody sweats, nobody strains, nobody loses control or even fakes losing control by simulating an orgasm. Also—and this is a turnoff—every time a sex scene comes on, some lady starts singing a big, whooshy Sex Scene song. Hello, Beyoncé, Ellie Goulding, Sia, Jessie Ware, Skylar Grey.

On the other hand, when dressed, the two stars look clean, smartly groomed, and ready for their fashion-magazine tie-ins. Johnson, with her indefinably French look à la Charlotte Gainsbourg, is particularly lovely, conveying a welcome flash of wit and self-awareness missing from the book. (Not once in the movie does Anastasia say “Holy crap!”) The production design subtly reinforces the title in everything from the color gradations of the sky to the wardrobe of the sleek office babes on Christian’s payroll. It’s a kick to see the fine actors Jennifer Ehle and Marcia Gay Harden play the young couple’s respective mothers. I spoil nothing by reporting what readers already know, that when Fifty Shades is not a dirty story, it is, as the trilogy unfolds, a study in cartoonishly weird family dynamics.

Readers also know the thrill of secret arousal—the power to privately reread the scenes that get their motor running (or helicopter flying) and skip the dull pages. This perfectly normal way of consuming erotica suggests that the movie Fifty Shades of Grey will work better as home entertainment, when each viewer can race past the blah-blah about how well Christian plays the piano and pause on the fleeting image of the man minus his pants. B–

Fifty Shades of Grey
  • Movie
  • 122 minutes