Another Valentine’s Day is besmirched by the arrival of a “Fifty Shades” movie adapted from one of E.J. James’s extravagantly bad series of mainstream S&M novels. Like “Fifty Shades of Grey,” released two years ago to nearly universal derision, “Fifty Shades Darker” centers on the relationship of Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), a mousy lass despite the metallic sound of her surname, with studly Seattle multi-billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), an extreme-sex addict who, for some reason, is totally besotted with her.
This installment begins with Ana, having dumped Grey because of his bedroom-and-elegant-torture-chamber practices, earning her keep as the assistant to a fiction editor at a printing house. She is, of course, very perceptive when it comes to picking promising manuscripts, but demonstrates continuing ineptitude at sizing up men by failing to recognize that her boss (Eric Johnson), whose shark-like sneer is practically dripping with lust, has designs on something other than her brain—not even his name, Mr. Hyde, appears to ring any bells with her, despite her supposed knowledge of British literature. Her bad judgment continues when she allows Grey to convince her to give him another chance—especially after he discloses details about his unhappy childhood (addict mother who overdosed) and meets Ella (Kim Bassinger, looking as though she’d been dipped into some sort of preservative), the bitchily jealous friend of Christian’s adoptive mother (Marcia Gay Harden) who taught him the ropes of the dominator-submissive trade.
Most of the film is devoted to the ups-and-downs, literal and figurative, of the Ana-Christian romance, which consist of a few soft-porn-style rolls in the hay, some delicately kinky S&M business, and a bit of nudity carefully staged to avoid any hint of moving beyond R-rating territory. There are a few roadblocks posted in the couple’s progress toward a conventionally “happy” ending—not simply confrontations with Ella and Hyde, but the intervention of Leila Williams (Bella Heathcote), one of Grey’s former submissives so miffed at being tossed aside for Ana that she turns homicidally jealous. The danger posed by Leila, however, is disposed of with ridiculous ease, just as an episode in which Christian goes missing, perhaps killed, is all build-up, petering out in a dull whimper.
Still, if the books and the first movie are any indication, there is a market out there for James’ flamboyantly trashy fare, and once again the studio has done it up with as much glossiness as it can muster. John Schwartzman gives sheen to the widescreen images, production designer Nelson Coates chose the outdoor locations well and hasn’t scrimped on the interiors, and Shay Cunliffe has gone all out in the costume department, even if some of the duds are awfully skimpy. The target audience might also appreciate the string of pop songs by the likes of Taylor Swift that fill the soundtrack, but their impact in this quarter was annoyance that turned to outright hostility, and the sappy, tinkling strains of Danny Elfman’s original score certainly represent the worst music he’s ever written for the screen.
The stars, to be sure, don’t bring much to the party. Even in a glitzy ball gown—not to mention the expensive under-things she periodically dons—Dakota comes off as a none-too-pretty young girl playing dress-up, and her acting ability remains minimal. Dornan is hunky but stiff, his carefully-calculated facial stubble doing most of the work in the thespian department. Most of the supporting cast—including Luke Grimes and Rita Ora as Christian’s adoptive siblings and Eloise Mumford as Ana’s roommate—barely register, but both Johnson and Bassinger make up for their recessive quality by coming on way too strong. One feels especially sorry for Harden, a fine actress compelled to play dumb regarding her best friend’s involvement with her adoptive son until the truth slips out, as well as Victor Rasuk as Jose, Ana’s artist friend who seems to have been instructed to play the character, simultaneously, as both heart-broken over her dalliance with Christian and as closeted gay. That’s just one miscalculation in the flaccid direction of James Foley, who’s made some good films in the past but here is totally defeated by the insipid dialogue crafted by Niall Leobard from James’s overripe prose. Perhaps if someone like Douglas Sirk had gotten his hands on this stuff, he might have given it some real style; as Foley and his cohorts present it, the movie resembles nothing as much as a mediocre puff piece in a slick woman’s magazine.
At one point in “Darker,” Christian admits he’s a sadist. That’s true, but the sad fact is that anybody who elects to watch it is a masochist. Despite the promise of the title, the movie isn’t dark enough; you can still see—and hear—what’s happening on the screen. And reportedly a third installment was filmed in tandem with this one, waiting threateningly for release next year; Valentine’s Day will come under assault once more.