The common gripe when a bestseller heads to the big screen is that the book is always better than the movie, but E.L. James' massively popular erotic page-turner "Fifty Shades of Grey" is a special case. Even devotees of the novel concede that its appeal has more to do with titillating sex scenes than finely drawn characters or expertly crafted language.
Now director Sam Taylor-Johnson's cinematic adaptation has arrived, starring Jamie Dornan as kinky billionaire Christian Grey and Dakota Johnson as mousy love interest Anastasia Steele. According to reviews, the film is in many ways a smarter if tamer entertainment than James' original, but it's hardly enough to set pulses racing.
The Times' Kenneth Turan writes, "An unashamed and genially preposterous fairy tale, a kind of 'Cinderella' with restraints, 'Fifty Shades' is about as believable as 'Jack and the Beanstalk,' albeit considerably more kinky in intent. Though it has its charms, including pleasing and well-matched actors … these pleasures have little to do with the bondage-themed sexual encounters that enabled E.L. James' badly written, unapologetically graphic trilogy of novels to sell a whopping 100-million copies in 52 languages worldwide."
Ultimately, Turan says, "Fifty Shades" is "forced to go over to the dark side, when Christian's actions come to feel abusive and not consensual and the delicate balancing act this film has been engaged in comes crashing down."
Variety's Justin Chang says, "If the problem with too many literary adaptations is a failure to capture the author's voice, then that shortcoming turns out to be the single greatest virtue of 'Fifty Shades of Grey.'" By "happily shedding the book's 500 or so pages of numbingly repetitive inner monologue," the filmmakers "have also made Ana a somewhat tougher, more skeptical heroine, played by Johnson with a very appealing combo of little-girl-lost naivete and gradually deepening assertiveness."
But Chang agrees with Turan that "the final half-hour or so is punishing in more than just a literal sense, bringing us to a less-than-scintillating cliffhanger in the now de rigueur manner of book-based, fan-driven franchise fare."
USA Today's Claudia Puig finds little to swoon over in the film, warning that "Sitting through the turgid and tedious S&M melodrama that is 'Fifty Shades of Grey' may feel like its own form of torture. … Those looking for hot, kinky sex will be disappointed," while "the dialogue … is laughable, the pacing is sluggish and the performances are one-note."
Puig adds, "What could have been provocative instead just feels like retro fantasy."
Sizing up the two leads, the New York Times' A.O. Scott writes, "Dornan, given the job of inspiring lust, fascination and also maybe a tiny, thrilling frisson of fear, succeeds mainly in eliciting pity." On the other hand, "What vitality 'Fifty Shades of Grey' possesses belongs to Ms. Johnson, who is a champion lip-biter and no slouch at blushing, eye-rolling and trembling on the verge of tears. She's a good actress, in other words."
All told, Scott says, "'Fifty Shades of Grey' might not be a good movie — O.K., it's a terrible movie — but it might nonetheless be a movie that feels good to see, whether you squirm or giggle or roll your eyes or just sit still and take your punishment."
Meanwhile, Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum gives "Fifty Shades" a B-minus grade and says the movie version "is considerably better written than the book. It is also sort of classy-looking, in a generic, TV-ad-for-bath-oil way."
Schwarzbaum adds, "The production is also oddly sedate — the most polite aspirational romance between a screwed-up prince and girlish princess ever to include loving close-ups of dominance-and-submission sex toys. … The result is confounding, leaving both those coming to the 'Fifty Shades' phenomenon for the first time as well as those who have read the book to wonder, for different reasons, Where's the beef?"