Editor’s Note: Fifty Shades Darker opens in wide theatrical release today, February 10, 2017.
In or out of Hollywood, commerce, not art usually wins out. And with $160 million domestically and another $400 million internationally, Fifty Shades of Grey, a yawn-inducing “erotic”/BDSM drama, hit a virtual sweet spot, both for its producers looking for a return on their investment and the small army of readers who inexplicably made fan-fiction-writer-turned-novelist E.L. James into a bestselling, literary sensation. Because publishing rules dictate that trilogies are the norm, never the exception, James followed up Fifty Shades of Grey with Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed, which is where we find ourselves, with the turgid, flaccid, borderline camp sequel, Fifty Shades Darker, no one wanted – or at least no longer wants post-zeitgeist – adapted by Niall Leonard (not coincidentally James’ husband) and a director, James Foley (Glengarry Glen Ross, After Dark, My Sweet, At Close Range), exchanging his reputation for a paycheck (he’s slotted to direct the third entry too), stepping in to replace departing director Sam Taylor-Johnson (a smart choice on her part, the opposite in his case).
What little plot Fifty Shades of Darker actually contains – roughly ten minutes worth by one generous estimation – gets stretched and quartered to an intolerable, excruciating two-hour running time and the obligatory set-up for the third and thankfully last film already in production.
It might have been two years since Fifty Shades of Grey darkened movie theaters around the world, but in the Fifty Shades universe, it’s only been a few weeks or months. Anastasia Rose Steele (Dakota Johnson), college student and wannabe writer, walked out on billionaire bad boy/obsessive stalker/BDSM enthusiast Christian Grey (Jamie Dorman), finally asserting her independence and agency after his abusive, controlling treatment in and out of bedroom/BDSM playroom, became too much for her to stand. But that doesn’t last long, of course. Christian forcefully reenters Ana’s life, begging for a second chance, promising to change, promising to be a better man. With that pitch, not to mention the billions in his bank account, his swanky, high-ceilinged penthouse apartment in the sky that overlooks downtown Seattle, and abs possessed by a select few (i.e., super-wealthy men, Ana relents, but not before putting a “no rules, no punishments” condition on their renewed relationship.
We find ourselves, with the turgid, flaccid, borderline camp sequel, Fifty Shades Darker, no one wanted – or at least no longer wants post-zeitgeist.
Almost immediately, Christian returns to his old, control freak ways: In a fit of romantic idealism, he buys Ana a new MacBook and a new iPhone (the better, presumably, to keep tabs on her), but even for Christian, that’s not enough. He decides to buy Seattle Independent Press (SIP), not because it’s a sound commercial investment, but because Ana works there as an assistant to a duplicitous, predatory fiction editor, Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson). Naturally, Christian sees Jack as a romantic rival. He’s not far off, though Ana only has eyes for Christian’s abs and the objects, trips, and social status his billions can buy. Ana’s attempts to domesticate Christian fail repeatedly, but since he’s damaged (crack addicted biological mother, a destructive relationship with a much older woman when he was all of fifteen, in case you’re wondering) and a billionaire (they’re exempt from social, cultural, and gender norms apparently), he gets a hard pass for his bad behavior, though the curiously prominent The Chronicles of Riddick poster in his childhood bedroom suggests heretofore unknown depths.
Fifty Shades of Darker throws in a half-hearted, underdeveloped stalker subplot involving one of Christian’s ex-lovers, Leila Williams (Bella Heathcote), but she disappears by the mid-point. Another subplot involving Ana’s rise from assistant to book editor (the timely intervention of her billionaire boyfriend helps) helps to pad out the slight, insubstantial story between periodic bouts of non-erotic, softcore sex between Ana and Christian (both go topless, she gets to touch Christian, he gets to spank her), each one only slightly less bland and unengaging than the last. What little plot Fifty Shades of Darker actually contains – roughly ten minutes worth by one generous estimation – gets stretched and quartered to an intolerable, excruciating two-hour running time and the obligatory set-up for the third and thankfully last film already in production.
A cynical cash grab with neither art nor merit, Fifty Shades Darker, the second film in the Fifty Shades trilogy, is low on both plot and eroticism.