Universal

50 Shades Darker: Bad To The Boner

The second installment in the ‘50 Shades’ trilogy is so brilliantly bad it’s genius

Fifty Shades Darker opens with a smack. Not the erotic sound of palm hitting rump, but of junkies brawling as their 4-year-old son, BDSM-billionaire-to-be Christian Grey, cowers under a table. Months later, his birth mother dies of a heroin overdose. Doing the math, she could have been shooting up with fellow Seattle addict Kurt Cobain. The orphaned boy will be adopted by tycoons and upgrade from grunge to glam. His childhood pain will mutate into a fetish for whips, slaps, and sad-eyed brunettes who look like his mommy — a pathology diagnosed by a college kid who skipped most of Psychology 101. And so, in the film's first five minutes, Fifty Shades author E.L. James sets up the series's strange sanctimony: You're screwed up if you think this sex-torture stuff is hot. But hey, isn't it kinda hot?

No matter your turn-on, Fifty Shades Darker is a thrill. It boasts Ben Wa balls, leg-spreaders, public panty-dropping, and more nipples than a baby-bottle factory. Into gymnastics? Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) has his own pommel horse. When his obsession, awkward literary assistant Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), spots him flexing in his private gym, she swoons. Dornan's handsome, even if his cold, accusing eyes make you think of a catfish slammed onto a pier. He's imperious, not enticing. The real lust object is Christian Grey's cash — he claims to make $24,000 every 15 minutes — and director James Foley and screenwriter Niall Leonard let us drool over every dollar. What do women want? Yacht porn, ball-gown porn, floral-bouquet porn, Macbook porn, wine-rack porn, impulse-mansion-buying porn, and hey-babe-if-your-boss-is-a-jerk-I-can-buy-out-your-company-and-have-him-fired porn.

Let me be clear: Fifty Shades Darker is goddamned bliss. The books are trash — straight-to-the-recycle-bin trash, not fun pulp — in which a dull girl tames a dastardly bachelor and becomes America's wealthiest wallflower. But the films work like a peep-show mirror. From one angle, they satisfy fans who made the trilogy a best seller. Yet cynics can also stand on the other side and cackle. The movies aren't so bad they're good. They're so brilliantly bad they're genius, with Foley dutifully presenting every inane plot point while gifting us excuses to laugh.

The dumber the story gets, the more "mistakes" Foley makes. He punches up Anastasia and Christian's reconciliation date with a waiter who squeakily opens a bottle of wine and punctures a naughty bit with her blurting, "No, you're not putting that in my butt!" By the climax, Foley undermines an entire scene with bizarre edits and, for a kicker, sets the follow-up Very Important Confessional in Christian Grey's teenage bedroom where a poster from Vin Diesel's Chronicles of Riddick looms over his shoulder. Both groupies and groaners are encouraged to snort. By allowing us to feel superior to the material, we're excused for buying a ticket and having a blast.

Original director Sam Taylor-Johnson had the masterstroke of casting Dakota Johnson as the quavering Miss Steele, a girl so droopy she orders her tea "weak." She gulps visibly and struggles to close her mouth, stammering so much she can barely finish a sentence. It was Johnson's first big role and people weren't sure if she was acting or just naturally perfect. In her sheer black panty hose, the kind women haven't worn onscreen since her mother Melanie Griffith starred in Working Girl, she did look born to play the part.

Since then, Johnson has proven she's a grade-A talent. (Check her out in last year's criminally underseen A Bigger Splash if you want to see her play a rude, cruel tigress.) Now we can appreciate her craft, the way she trills her voice like a piccolo and channels her own embarrassment into Anastasia's. She has so much control over the character that some of her best moments are unspoken, like the way she flicks her eyes toward Christian's naked keister or, when he takes away her white wine, shoots him a silent, "Really?"

Johnson dominates the film the way water carves the Grand Canyon. She deserves to be paired with a leading man who puts up a fight, or at least someone who can deliver lines like, "I don't like strangers staring at you" with a frightening electricity. But Dornan is so stony and stiff, he's simply the pole she's stuck dancing around.

At least Foley frames their love scenes around her sexual pleasure. Christian gives, not receives. I've never seen a film so obsessed with putting a man on his knees. But Foley, who directed the macho classic Glengarry Glen Ross, can also be unusually lady-brained. Twenty years ago, he filmed the Reese Witherspoon high-school thriller Fear, in which the already middle-aged director showed he understood the female gaze. His camera gaped at then–underwear model Mark Wahlberg, cast as the ultimate bad boyfriend, yet also got that women appreciate details like the ruffles on Reese's ankle socks.

Here, Johnson barely keeps her shirt on for 10 minutes. Yet Foley never treats her like meat. Instead, we watch Anastasia appreciate the way she looks in lingerie, which then gives us permission to do the same. When they strip down, Foley focuses on the sounds — the jingle of a belt buckle, the sssshhhh of panties sliding down thighs — before panning across their thrusting bodies to zoom in on the couple holding hands. He shows plenty. But he leaves space for imagination.

I haven't talked much about the plot because there isn't much to say. Fifty Shades Darker is structured like an afternoon of Perils of Pauline serials in which the heroine always comes out on top. Two of Christian's ex-girlfriends (Kim Basinger and Bella Heathcote) threaten to stir up trouble, as does Anastasia's nutso boss (Eric Johnson), but they all slink off without much of a fight. (At least one of them is saving their energy for next year's Fifty Shades Freed.) The rest of the drama comes from control-freak Christian continually overstepping his bounds, which makes Anastasia momentarily annoyed before the next shiny thing commands her attention.

Often, she's drawn to a picture of Christian's dead mom, whom he'd rather not discuss. E.L. James's tragic rationale for his bondage fantasies is queasy and hypocritical. How many maternal overdoses does it take to write three books of smut? It's two-faced, but hell, so is Foley's direction and the trilogy's whole point. Slowly, we realize that the series which normalized BDSM actually celebrates how a girl tames a domineering bully into her basic-bro fiancé. Let him handcuff her in his red room. She'll even the score by dragging him to the supermarket and taunting him with a pint of Ben & Jerry's vanilla. The ice cream doesn't just represent the missionary sex he'll be having for the rest of his life; it's also the only BJ he’s getting.