About halfway through Fifty Shades Darker, the mild-mannered Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) sits in on a big-shot meeting at her big-shot publishing job. While all the senior executives hem and haw about how they need to cut back on the number of fiction titles they’re publishing, Ana speaks up and declares that no, they actually need to be expanding their titles, particularly books targeting young women. After all, she says, there’s a whole pool of talented, untapped writers on the internet, and the publishing industry needs to take writers with a sizable online audience seriously.
So in case you were wondering just how much influence E.L. James had over the second big-screen adaptation of her work, there’s your answer. The British writer became an international phenomenon when she turned her kinky Twilight fan-fiction into an original best-selling trilogy, so it’s no surprise that the first Fifty Shades soon got a Hollywood movie version. Director Sam Taylor-Johnson and screenwriter Kelly Marcel delivered a glossy if forgettable first installment, but they at least managed to have fun, adding some winking self-awareness and toning down some of James’ absurd dialogue. (Thankfully, Ana at no point references her “inner goddess” on screen.)
Now, Ana and her deviant billionaire suitor are back, but this time, Glengarry Glen Ross director James Foley is stepping behind the camera with a script by Niall Leonard — a.k.a. Mr. E.L. James. Leonard sticks much closer to his wife’s original goofy plot, and the result is a bland story that never really commits to what it wants to be. Part romance, part thriller, and part soap opera, Darker never does any of those genres particularly well, instead delivering a softcore Hallmark Channel movie that’s neither sexy enough to be exciting nor campy enough to be any fun.
In the first film, Ana fell hard for wealthy Seattle sadist Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) before getting spooked by the full depth of his sadism. The sequel promises that things will go Darker, but instead, the lovesick Ana and Christian immediately reconcile, promising to embark on a more “vanilla” courtship complete with fancy masquerade balls and fully-clothed sailboat trips soundtracked by Taylor Swift and Zayn. He’s trying to be less controlling and actually let her have a career (although he still buys her publishing company just because he can), while she’s trying to get him to open up about his abusive childhood. In between, they have a lot of sex.
As a result, Darker is strangely plotless and devoid of any real tension. Any actual plot points—spurned stalkers, creepy coworkers, helicopter crashes—are immediately resolved, often to be forgotten minutes later. There’s never even any question over whether these two beautiful bland people will end up together in the end, seeing as their only real personality trait is that they’re both inexplicably drawn to one another. Kim Basinger shows up for a while as Christian’s former lover, adding a little bit of cheesy, villainous flair to the whole thing. (One theatrical confrontation between her and Christian’s mother, Marcia Gay Harden, is a reminder of how much fun Darker could have been if it didn’t take itself so seriously.)
Poor Dornan still isn’t given much to work with, except this time, his abs are a little more defined and he’s grown some stubble to show just how heartbroken he’s been without Ana in his life. Johnson gets to have a little more fun, actually cracking jokes and acknowledging the humor in some of Christian’s more ridiculous requests. Still, they’re both hampered by James’ nonsensical dialogue, as Dornan is stuck saying things like, “I don’t know whether to worship at your feet or spank you.” Worst of all, Darker commits what might be the most punishable offense: just being boring. C–