There are some movies that you can’t wait to see. Then there are movies where you can’t wait just to see the reviews. Fifty Shades of Grey might be the rare film that is both. Every twist and turn leading up to the cinematic adaptation of E L James’ erotic best-seller has made headlines, from the casting of the film’s romantic leads to the music in the trailer to the graphic nature of the sex scenes. You don’t have to have read the book to know why people care about a mousy 22-year-old virgin who falls for a model-handsome billionaire who harbors a taste for kink.

Dakota Johnson (The Social Network) stars as Anastasia Steele, the writer from the college newspaper who makes an impression while interviewing uber-wealthy Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) at his skyscraper office. But this meet-cute is destined to penetrate our deepest desires, for Christian is a man of singular tastes who would like to introduce Anastasia to a world of pain and pleasure. Oh, my.

The film, written by Kelly Marcel and directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson, has a low-bar to clear in one sense: few English majors are using James’ novel for their literary thesis. The movie’s real challenge will be recreating the book’s sexual tension and chemistry without descending into camp. “Fifty Shades of Grey is considerably better written than the book,” writes EW’s Lisa Schwarzbaum. “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.”

Read Schwarzbaum’s entire review, as well as a round-up of other notable critics, below.

Lisa Schwarzbaum (Entertainment Weekly)

“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? … 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.”

David Edelstein (New York)

“The eagerly awaited/dreaded film adaptation of the best-selling BDSM romance Fifty Shades of Grey is nowhere near as laughable as you might have feared (or perversely hoped for): It’s elegantly made, and Dakota Johnson is so good at navigating the heroine’s emotional zigs and zags that you want to buy into the whole cobwebbed premise.”

Lindsey Bahr (Associated Press)

“Director Sam Taylor-Johnson had an impossible mission on her hands to meld the tawdry with the conventional. It’s like trying to mash up the sensibilities of Lars von Trier with Nancy Meyers to create an end product that will be appealing on a mass scale. In trying to please everyone, though, Fifty Shades of Grey has stripped away the fun and settled on palatable. There have been perfume commercials with more depth and story arc.”

Justin Chang (Variety)

“If the problem with too many literary adaptations is a failure to capture the author’s voice, then that shortcoming turns out to be the single greatest virtue of Fifty Shades of Grey … Director Sam Taylor-Johnson and screenwriter Kelly Marcel have brought out a welcome element of cheeky, knowing humor that gradually recedes as the action plunges into darker, kinkier territory.”

A.O. Scott (New York Times)

“In print, Christian is a blur and a blank—a screen onto which any given reader can project a customized masculine ideal. On the screen, he risks becoming just some guy, which is how Mr. Dornan plays him, without mischief or mystery. There are actors who might have given Christian a jolt of naughty, bossy life, most of them creatures of an earlier movie era. … Mr. Dornan has the bland affect of a model, by which I mean a figure made of balsa wood or Lego.”

Stephen Whitty (Newark Star-Ledger)

“It’s more like 50 Shades of Beige. It has a small beating heart, though, and that’s Dakota Johnson. The child of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson, and grandchild of Tippi Hedren—pretty decent gene pool there – she has her mother’s baby face and her own open, emotional eagerness. … But then we get to Jamie Dornan, who has a house as beautifully empty as his expression, and prowls its rooms late at night like an only slightly darker Bruce Wayne. The Adam West version, too.”

Sheri Linden (Hollywood Reporter)

“It’s a slow build to the smutty bits, and one that’s disappointingly devoid of tension. Even so, the movie is, by definition, a stronger proposition than the book because it strips away the oodles of cringe-inducing descriptions and internal monologue that tip the text heavily toward self-parody.”

Eric Kohn (IndieWire) ▼

“The sex, well-choreographed for what it is, hovers on the verge of soft-core material but only offers fragments. With the book’s dirtiest sequences excised from the picture, even the most extreme bedroom sessions amount to little more than a teaser trailer for the source material. Needless to say, no amount of evocative images or elaborately-framed thrusts can save a story this blandly one-note.”

Claudia Puig (USA Today) ▼

“Despite the blandness of their moments together, Anastasia can’t help but be seduced by this handsome billionaire who buys her expensive gifts, orders her around and creepily appears when she least expects it. It’s a perverted twist on a Cinderella tale. The film is being touted for steamy elevator sex scenes. Mostly, however, the pair just repeat each other’s names as elevator doors close.”

Mick LaSalle (San Francisco Chronicle)

“There are too many similar scenes, in which she tries to get close, and he tries to get her to sign some contract agreeing to become his “submissive” partner in sadomasochistic sex games. Curiously, though these scenes become tiresome, Johnson and Dornan never do. Nor does the odd romance of Ana and Christian ever become a matter of indifference. We always care; we just wish they’d talk about something new.”

Kenneth Turan (Los Angeles Times)

Fifty Shades encourages us to buy into this credulity-straining scenario because the actors go well together (casting director Francine Maisler did the heavy lifting), Dornan’s steely resolve facing off nicely against Johnson’s engaging feistyness as each tries to make this cross-cultural relationship work on his or her own terms.”

Fifty Shades of Grey

Overall Metacritic rating (1-100): 50

Rotten Tomatoes: 41 percent

Rated: R

Length: 110 minutes

Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson

Starring Jamie Dornan, Dakota Johnson, Jennifer Ehle, Marcia Gay Harden

Distributor: Focus

Fifty Shades of Grey
  • Movie
  • 122 minutes