Grey Area


By Benjy Wall-Feng

My first brush with the cultural tsunami that is “Fifty Shades of Grey” was in fourth grade, when I noticed, in one of the magazines my class was gleefully vivisecting for collage fodder, a book review with the alarming first sentence:

“There are three kinds of sex — sex in the kitchen, sex in the bedroom, and sex after reading ‘Fifty Shades of Grey.'”

Prepubescent me, bewildered and frightened, filed that information away for later use. Smash cut to 2018 and the trilogy is a ridiculous success, successful enough, at least, that the third movie adaptation is now oozing its wanton glory in theaters across the world. That movie is called “Fifty Shades Freed.” It is one of the best things I’ve ever seen.

The first thing to note, the thing which must be established to show that I as a reviewer have something approaching taste, is that “Fifty Shades Freed” fails on every possible level. It tries to broaden its scope, too, to expand its audience from sexually repressed housewives and people who haven’t discovered the Internet, and in doing so manages to fail on levels that no one even expected it to attempt. Remember the three kinds of sex? This movie has none of them. The second sex scene is 30 seconds of its participants writhing, fully clothed, in a parking lot. There are too many cop-outs, fruitless buildups, to keep track of. I’d like to avoid giving the impression that my enjoyment of a movie is proportional to its eroticism, so this would all be OK, except the entire point of “Fifty Shades” is that it’s about sex. It’s twelve-dollar softcore pornography, down to the quality of the script and the dedication of the actors. But especially given that more time is devoted to licking Ben & Jerry’s from Jamie Dornan’s throbbing pecs than to any substantive sex acts — and given that in a movie ostensibly about BDSM the farthest its protagonists go is handcuffs — it’s hard to justify seeing the movie for that reason. So what else does it have to offer?

A gripping plot, maybe. “Fifty Shades Freed” opens with our protagonists, Ana (née Steele) and Christian Grey, getting married. What follows is the first instance of a recurring theme of well-intentioned montages; this one in particular, a catalog of their globetrotting marital bliss, behaves in form and function like a Cialis commercial. (Later montages are equally dubious, especially the sex scenes, which feature copious amounts of background music, like maybe the director was afraid to let his subjects speak for themselves. I’m not sure I blame him.) Their post-honeymoon activities include but are not limited to: buying a house; fighting over buying a house; having sex; going to work; fighting while at work; having sex; going on vacation; fighting on vacation; and having sex. If that sounds tedious it absolutely is. Probably at some point their constant bickering was supposed to complement their constant psychosexual power struggle, but for all practical purposes it serves only to emphasize that they have nothing approaching chemistry or even a plausible relationship. So “Fifty Shades Freed,” recognizing perhaps its failures as a romance, decides to become an action movie.

Which is to say that Christian’s adoptive sister is kidnapped by Ana’s ex-boss Jack Hyde, who in a twist worthy of M. Night Shyamalan is revealed to have been plotting revenge on Christian ever since a childhood mishap at the orphanage in which they both grew up, making Hyde’s name somehow less derivative than his origin story (ripped almost verbatim from, of all things, “Meet the Robinsons”). There are a couple of car chases, one of which contains the movie’s most thrilling stunt: Ana nudging her car very slightly outside the edge of the lane.

The rest of the action doesn’t fare much better. In the movie’s climax Ana is slapped once by Hyde, and, after that blow renders her prostrate in agony, kicked once in the stomach. This is apparently enough to send her to the surgery ward for enough time that the camera finds it necessary to linger on her heartbeat monitor, hoping, perhaps, as we do, that something of consequence will finally befall any significant character. Then she recovers and she and Christian live happily ever after.

The easiest way of describing my unbridled passion for this movie is to say that it functions inexplicably as an accidental caricature of the human condition. One has only to whip out his or her satin blindfold and throw a dart at any of the film’s scenes to be able to gape at the audacity with which E. L. James and her coterie of fetishists absorb and perfectly reflect the state of culture in 2018. “Fifty Shades Freed” is in turns an impassioned defense of the privileged; a twenty-minute Audi commercial; a hesitant step toward female empowerment, followed by fifty steps in the opposite direction; and a love letter to the hypersexualization of media. It’s the perfect vessel through which to skewer these things, too, because it’s impossible to care about any of the characters. Ana is an aimless millennial who has married into everything she could ever want; Christian is a sugar daddy outshined in looks and in personality by Ana’s bodyguard, Sawyer, who resembles B. J. Novak if B. J. Novak were Adonis reincarnate; and both leads have the emotional maturity of middle school students.

The movie isn’t so bad that it’s funny, but it is somehow so bad that it acts as a total deconstruction of everything wrong with cinema. There exist tropes in films which have been overused to the point that a single glance leaks laziness or unoriginality, and “Fifty Shades Freed” revels in them, actually luxuriates, to the extent that those tropes are laid bare, and to that end it’s informative and frequently amusing. (And neither should the actual experience of seeing the movie be ignored. What better way to spend two hours than in the company of five middle-aged couples, two elderly couples, three teenage girls, and a graying man with unfortunate facial hair?)

So “Fifty Shades Freed” isn’t the earthshaking work of art my ten-year-old self dreamed it to be — it’s actually as far removed from that as is physically possible — but still. When Ana and Christian work out the kinks in their marriage, they act as a mirror for America working out the kinks in its culture, and if that’s not beautiful in any conventional or literal or figurative sense it’s still something. My inner goddess approves.