"Fifty Shades Darker" Handcuffed By Humdrum Screenplay

In the worst thing to happen to fictional Seattle since Frasier bedded Roz, “Fifty Shades Darker” sheds the comedic bent of its highly watchable predecessor in favor of living down – way, way down – to its source material. The sequel gives E.L. James’ no-good prose its due, dispensing the kind of bleary-eyed erotica that wouldn’t pass muster at the offices of Cinemax. Characters come and go, lines like “[That doesn’t] go in your butt” and “Those are nipple clamps” stand in for plot, and star Dakota Johnson tries, barely, to convince us that she’s having a good time, or an okay time, or at least that she doesn’t want to run screaming from the set.

Director James Foley, who made his chef-d’oeuvre “Glengarry Glen Ross” twenty-five years ago and then might as well have disappeared, takes the reins from Sam Taylor-Johnson. He imbues the film with all the pizzazz of a stone dead field mouse. His vision for “Darker” is wan and earnest, smothering any hope that the book’s traces of trashy fun might translate to the big screen; that it might build on the perfectly guilty pleasures of the first film.

More incriminating still: Screenwriter Kelly Marcel, whose “Fifty Shades Of Grey” screenplay mined the source material for all it was worth and then some, has been replaced with TV writer Niall Leonard, E.L. James’ husband. He was reportedly brought on as a compromise. James wanted to write her own screenplay; Universal Pictures wanted to bring in another outsider. Leonard’s hiring ends up the bad idea from which all bad ideas in the movie derive.

The books that inspired James to write Fifty Shades, Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series, became more sustainable as films the further they moved away from Meyer’s text. The last, “Breaking Dawn – Part 2,” has even developed a sizable cult following. In taking the opposite approach, in keeping “Fifty Shades” hopelessly in the family, Universal has preordained the failure of “Darker” and the already shot third film “Fifty Shades Freed.” James’ prose is, with all objectivity, poorly written fan fiction. Niall Leonard is one of the two people involved in the production without any objectivity. His hiring is a bad scene, or more precisely, makes for so many bad scenes.

Billionaire and sado-masochist Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) wants his former squeeze Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) back. He wants her back so much that he’s willing to set aside his BDSM activities in favor of a more traditional relationship. Ana’s creepy boss Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson) is in the mix for her affections, promising a new kind of power struggle between Christian and Ana. But instead of teasing it out, the movie almost instantly reunites the pair and sends them off on a tedious journey of sexual discovery. Supporting players (Marcia Gay Harden, Kim Basinger, Bruce Altman) pop in and out as needed.

The leads’ burgeoning romantic relationship revolves around a half dozen sex scenes, all notably tamer than that of the first film. The nudity remains inequitable (Johnson is frequently naked, Dornan’s body is mostly clothed or obscured) and the sex is shot like a car commercial – utilitarian, sterile, interchangeable. The scenes also come at a predictable clip, making them feel about as spontaneous as a scheduled out tire rotation.

Johnson and Dornan, famously not fond of each other off screen, can’t even turn that twinge of dislike into anything compelling, mostly going through the motions, delivering dialogue and sex moves they know are plainly uninteresting. By the time Christian abruptly finds himself lost in the mountains due to a helicopter malfunction, the movie is practically daring us to check out – its first tempting proposition.

If only any of this were packaged with the knowing humor of the first film. Like Taylor Swift’s falsetto on the soundtrack’s lead single, every inch of “Darker” is thin and colorless. It’s softcore porn about dullards, for dullards, like a narcoleptic fumbling with a bra clasp. It’s uninterested actors telling an uninteresting story, dutifully bridging to a preordained third film in a trilogy. Given that this same creative team already has that movie in in the can, there’s no hope for a satisfying conclusion. Two films in and it’s game over for Christian and Ana. Audiences, too.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Bad)

Release Date: February 10, 2017
Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: James Foley
Screenwriters: Niall Leonard
Starring: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Eric Johnson, Kim Basinger, Marcia Gay Harden, Bruce Altman Rita Ora, Luke Grimes
MPAA Rating: R (for strong erotic sexual content, some graphic nudity, and language)