Strip the pleasure away from a guilty pleasure and what are you left with exactly? Fifty Shades Freed, the third and final cinematic installment in E.L. James’ trashy S&M trilogy, answers that question with every ludicrous plot twist, stilted line delivery, and too-laughable-to-be-hot sex scene.
Ironically, for a film about the art of the tease, Fifty Shades Freed wastes no time diving right into things. A glossy, envy-inducing montage shows Anastasia (Dakota Johnson) and Christian (Jamie Dornan) getting dolled up for their big wedding day. Soon, they’re exchanging vows — yet another contract of sorts between these two, albeit one that’s more traditional than transgressive. They dash out of the reception, tear off in a sports car, and pull up to his private jet. “You own this?” she asks as if chloroformed into a Kardashian fairy tale. “We own this,” he replies. Jesus wept.
But just when you begin to worry that Fifty Shades has become less kinky Penthouse Forum and more wish-fulfillment Martha Stewart Weddings, the newlyweds arrive in Paris for their honeymoon. Yachts are unmoored. Topless beaches are basked upon. And preposterous exchanges like this (courtesy of James’ husband, screenwriter Niall Leonard) are uttered: “How come you always braid my hair?” “Hush…. Do you remember your safe word?” Handcuffs are deployed. Moans are moaned. And In the audience, eyes are rolled.
Meanwhile, back in Seattle, there’s a break-in at Grey’s Dr. Evil-like corporate HQ. It’s the dirty work of none other than Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), Anastasia’s creepy ex-boss and nemesis. The honeymoon will have to be put on hold as the couple flies home to stumble through the clumsy machinations of a preposterous howler of a thriller between bouts of vigorous humping and Anastasia’s uneasy awakening into the world of being a kept woman. E.L. James, 1; Feminism, 0.
The dynamic has changed a bit between these two impossibly photogenic ciphers over the course of James’ saga. Christian seems more insecure — more jealous, more possessive, and more willing (or, at least, less reluctant) to occasionally be the bottom in the relationship. Anastasia, on the other hand, is bucking at the gilded cage she finds herself trapped in. She’s more assertive (at least when it suits her interests) and more interested in taking the wheel (literally during a high-speed chase with Hyde, which of course is capped off by a legs-akimbo bucket-seat quickie). The audience I saw this with cracked up the whole time. And not in the we’re-uncomfortable-so-let’s-nervously-laugh way, but in the can-you-believe-this-is-an-actual-movie forehead-slapping way.
The thriller plot with Hyde is wafer thin. So director James Foley (yes, the same James Foley who somehow once directed Glengarry Glen Ross and then apparently lost a best with Satan) appeals to our collective weakness for materialistic envy with ritzy mountain vacations, bubble baths, and visits to the infamous Red Room of Pain. As an actress, Johnson sells all of this hooey better than Dornan, who, three films in, hasn’t gotten much better as an actor. Sure, he has an underwear model’s bod, artfully manicured stubble, and intense Blue Steel stares. He can even sit down at the piano and soulfully belt his way through Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed”. But he still comes off as a daytime soap star who somehow hit the lottery.
Alas, there’s also some trouble in paradise. The newlyweds argue about their differing expectations of what being married means, time tables on starting a family, and even whether or not Anastasia should take her bikini top off on the beach. (Spoiler alert: she does.) But none of this is very interesting. Which leaves us with the sex. There was a time back in the early ‘90s, when steamy erotic thrillers like this unspooled on Cinemax in the wee hours seemingly all the time. They had interchangeable names like Animal Instincts, Body Chemistry, and Sins of Desire. They seemed to sprout up like toadstools in the wake of commercial big-studio hits like Fatal Attraction, 9 ½ Weeks, and Basic Instinct. Those films weren’t very good either. But they at least seemed to embrace their own trashiness without shame. They had a certain integrity about their awfulnesss. Fifty Shades Freed is certainly slicker than those carnal cheapies. But it seems embarrassed to embrace its own pervy nature. It’s kitsch that looks in the mirror and deludes itself into thinking it sees art staring back. D+