Looking for truth in advertising in Hollywood publicity is by definition a fool’s errand, but even by the dubious standards of the industry promoting “Fifty Shades Darker” with the line “Every Fairy Tale Has a Dark Side” is something of a stretch.
For as those who experience this sequel to “Fifty Shades of Grey” will soon discover, the darkest thing about this continuation of the story of domineering billionaire Christian Grey and his spunky romantic sparring partner Anastasia Steele are the black looks of audience members wondering where even the slight charms of the first picture have gone to.
That film, directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson and adapted from the E.L. James novel by Kelly Marcel, may have been ridiculous, but stars Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan made an agreeable couple, and the whole thing could be experienced as an unashamed and genially preposterous fairy tale, a kind of “Cinderella” with restraints.
Johnson and Dornan are back (more about them in a minute), but the rest of the team has been changed. Taylor-Johnson reportedly clashed with author/producer James and has been replaced by journeyman director James Foley, and Marcel was replaced by Niall Leonard, who happens to be James’ husband.
The film the new team has come up with is noticeably less alive than the last one. Despite its culturally sanctioned titillation, including the introduction of a whole range of sex toys that are definitely not for children, this is a surprisingly dull and tedious affair where nothing is even remotely plausible, the romance and the sex least of all.
To be fair, part of the problem here is with the novel’s storyline. Despite all that huffing and puffing about darkness, and the presence of some sketchy characters at the film’s margins, this is basically a narrative about compromise, and though that quality is essential for a lasting relationship, it does not make for stirring drama.
When the first “Fifty Shades” ended, compromise was the furthest thing from Grey and Steele’s minds. Horrified at the way Christian “got off on the pain you inflicted,” Anastasia walked out of the relationship and moved on. Or did she?
Even though she’s got a new job as a receptionist for hotshot fiction editor Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson) at Seattle Independent Press, Anastasia can’t quite get Christian out of her mind. And he, much to his surprise, feels the same way.
“I’d like to renegotiate terms,” he tells her at a peace conference dinner. “No rules, no punishments, we only do what you’re comfortable with.” To which she adds, “no more secrets.” And so the compromising begins.
On Christian’s side, he begins to open up about his past as the son of a crack-addicted mother who died when he was 4. And he experiments with allowing Anastasia to touch him, even, in a particularly boggling scene, helping her draw an outline of his forbidden zone on his torso with bright red lipstick.
For her part Anastasia gets more comfortable with the kind of, uh, adventurous sexuality that has been the norm for Christian. There are not many films where “I want you to spank me” is a pivotal line, but it is here.
But all this is not as easy as it sounds. Anastasia worries that Christian will have trouble giving up his domineering ways, (“this is not a relationship, it’s ownership,” she snaps at him at one point) and he has difficulty getting used to her desire to have a genuine career.
Johnson and Dornan do their best, but the spark they had in the first film is largely gone. All the sexual ecstasy she has to counterfeit seems to have sapped Johnson’s energy, and the pumped-up Dornan’s most effective scene is not a dramatic one but a solo gymnastics move on a vintage leather pommel horse.
And then there are those sketchy characters, including Anastasia’s boss, a book editor whose villainy extends well beyond changing the random comma and whose insinuating tone makes even a business trip to New York’s convivial BookExpo sound sinister.
Also lurking in the vicinity is the pale and wan Leila Williams (Bella Heathcote), an up-to-no-good survivor of Christian’s dark history who comes and goes like the Ghost of Christmas Past.
Most sinister of all is Elena Lincoln (a welcome Kim Basinger), owner of the hair salon Esclave (French for “slave” if you must know), the woman who started Christian on his downward path years before and refuses to let him go.
Despite its determination to make us gasp, “Fifty Shades Darker” is finally too decorous for its own good. The most shocking information it conveys is the assurance that yet a third film, “Fifty Shades Freed,” is exactly a year away. You have been warned.
MPAA rating: R, for strong erotic sexual content, some graphic nudity, and language.
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes.
In general release.