Dakota Johnson Runs Away With "Fifty Shades Of Grey"

It began like the set-up to an especially unbelievable joke. Middle-aged British woman writes steamy Twilight fan-fiction under the name “Snowqueen’s Icedragon,” parlays amateurish prose into a book deal. But 100 million copies sold is the opposite of a punchline. It’s proof positive that author EL James’ Fifty Shades Of Grey tapped into something culturally significant, be it sexual curiosity or pop culture curio. Published in 2011, it was a phenomenon by 2012.

Cut to 2015. The movie version is here. And the surprises keep coming.

Director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s film adaptation is funny (often intentionally!), ferociously unsexy (more on that in a bit), and roundly entertaining from beginning to end. Led by a star-making performance from Dakota Johnson (“The Social Network”) as Anastasia Steele, 21 year-old English literature major, the film quickly finds the comedy that nobody knew was lurking beneath the pages of James’ ostensibly kinky sex yarn.

Anastasia, writer for her student newspaper, is assigned to interview a reclusive 27 year-old billionaire named Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan, ABC’s “Once Upon A Time”). Their sexual chemistry is immediate if hard to pin down. As fans are well aware, Ana is soon exposed as the inexperienced Little Red Riding Hood to Christian’s predatory, power-hungry wolf. His sexual proclivities are of the whips-and-chains variety, leading him to prowl for a willing submissive to enact his fantasies.

Most of the film revolves around whether or not Ana wants to be that person. Christian is objectively handsome, obscenely wealthy, and something intangible about him strikes her fancy. But in understandably wanting romance from someone who insists he can’t give it, she finds herself marooned between places unknown. As their game of cat and mouse goes on, she slowly intimates herself with his brand of sexual play, all of it very R-rated.

When the screenplay reveals that Christian was abused as a teenager by an older woman – references to Mike Nichols’ “The Graduate” abound – an interesting pop-psychological framework comes into focus. For this critic, at least, the picture’s sex is anything but titillating – it’s actually frequently disturbing – but it’s an interesting look at something rarely seen in film or television.

Or maybe it’s all just trashy, would-be erotic melodrama. Either way, it’s a surprisingly well made, good-looking movie that’s a far cry from the “Showgirls”-level expectations held by casual observers. Its “Incredible Hulk”-style implications of control issues – and mistaking power for intimacy – suggest something deeper, a distinction that absolutely elevates the material.

Also elevating the material? Dakota Johnson (daughter of actors Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith), who is great in the film. She shows off razor-sharp comedic skills that no one knew she had and faces down lots of difficult, revealing physical work that would get the best of many actresses. Dornan doesn’t fare nearly as well as Grey, but since the character is a shell of a man controlled by lust, the actor gets by with a passing grade.

The movie answers zero of the questions it raises, inevitable fading into a fog of mixed messages – is Christian Grey a domestic abuser? – but its cliffhanger of an ending promises plenty of drama for the film’s predestined sequels.

“Fifty Shades Of Grey” is for very few outside of fans of the book, but those fans should be thrilled that their critically reviled object of affection has been massaged into a worthwhile film. What could have been a bad joke left to snowball in real time on the silver screen has provided a head-turning lead performance, a stellar soundtrack (Beyonce!), and reason to have real discussions about sexual preferences and what they mean – and what they don’t. From something with roots in Twilight fan-fiction, who could ask for more?

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: February 13, 2015
Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson
Screenwriter: Kelly Marcel
Starring: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Eloise Mumford, Jennifer Ehle, Marcia Gay Harden
MPAA Rating: R (strong sexual content including dialogue, some unusual behavior and graphic nudity, and for language)