Friday, February 13, 2015

"Fifty Shades" of Intentional and Unintentional Comedy

Fifty Shades of Grey
"This elevator is only the beginning, Ms. Steele. There will be helicopters and planes!
Maybe even a boat ride some day. Just don't try to get me to engage in any human behavior."
My name is Eric Harris, and I have seen Fifty Shades of Grey. Sorry, but I feel like I might need a support group after that experience. This isn’t to say that the movie is bad (I didn’t think it was very good, but it’s not the worst thing ever, either), it’s just that the Thursday night, 30:1 ratio of women to men audience wasn’t for me. The support group analogy is relevant for two reasons. 1. The plot of the film is essentially about a woman figuring out what mental disorder a man she is obsessed with is suffering from. 2. As I heard the bursts of maniacal laughter before and during the film, I couldn’t help but start to psychoanalyze the audience and ask why any of them were there. I was there because my wife wanted to see it (and a few people on Facebook have been [jokingly?] requesting a review). This will be a review, but there will also be a focus on the phenomenon of the film, as well.

My knowledge of the source material of Fifty Shades of Grey is minimal. I know that the book is extremely popular (even though it began as Twilight fan fiction) and contains graphic BDSM (if you don’t what this means, do your own research; a simple definition would “rough stuff”) sex throughout. I guess I get the popularity; it’s “forbidden” and edgy. Also, the popularity itself lends to more popularity. A lot of people are going to watch it, I believe, simply because a lot of people are going to watch it. Based on this sparse knowledge of the material, I assumed the book had a very serious tone. So I was a bit surprised when it turned out the film was intentionally comedic many times (and unintentionally a few times too, but more on that later).

I’ve been told the book has comedic elements, but is not meant to be comedic in general, but I can see why the filmmakers decided to play up some of the more absurd moments. A basic rundown of the story is necessary to understand what’s so absurd about it. Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), an English major about to graduate, has to interview (she is subbing for her journalism major friend) notoriously single and secretive billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). There’s a love at first sight moment (that I don’t buy), and they begin a cat-and-mouse game of romance. When things get serious, Christian reveals that he’s into BDSM to the point that he wants Anastasia to go over a contract about what they will and will not do together. That’s where it gets absurd. There is an actual meeting in which they go over the terms. Thankfully, it’s played for laughs, as are most of the strange demands of Christian. This, to me, is the saving grace of the film. By acknowledging the crazier parts, it at least becomes a self-aware, albeit still silly, movie.

My problem with the movie isn’t that it attempts to be funny; it’s that it doesn’t go far enough with the humor. Fifty Shades of Grey could have been a satirical dissection of romantic movies in general, but instead falls into the same clich├ęs that keep that genre down. It turns into a “Will they, or won’t they?” story. There are moments where the film almost rises above it, though. For example, Christian sets up a date then quickly says Anastasia should stay away from him. It’s as cheesy as can be, but she later (literally) calls him out on it. Moments like that perked my interest, but they were few and far between.

No one is going to this film looking for a dissection of the romantic genre, though. Most people are going for the sex. Honestly, the sex scenes were some of the most boring moments of the film. It’s all very standard R-rated stuff, for the most part, just much more of it than in most films. I was reminded of The Room, the notoriously so-bad-it’s-good film from Tommy Wiseau which features sex scenes that seem to go on forever. Perhaps others will find something exciting there, but the sex scenes ended up feeling pretty empty to me. And that should be a problem for any audience member. There isn’t any emotion attached to any of this. These two characters claim to be on the cusp of falling in love with each other, but aside from a helicopter and plane ride, all these two do is have sex. Sure, they’re both pretty, and they are physically attracted to each other, but nothing happens in the film to show that they have anything more than physical feelings for each other. It’s fine for a movie about a woman’s sexuality to not have love in it (check out Nymphomaniac Vols. 1 & 2 from Lars von Trier if you want that; it even features much more explicit sex than this), but these characters claim that love is part of it.

This is why the movie is unintentionally funny. The helicopter and plane rides stuck out to me as the funniest moments. It’s something out of The Bachelor (let me get this out of the way: My name is Eric Harris, and I watch The Bachelor). When Anastasia is in doubt of the relationship, Christian takes her for a helicopter ride, and she’s in awe. She gets a bit upset later on, so what does Christian do? “Plane ride, honey! Don’t you feel better about things now?” And she does! That led me to conclude that Anastasia is simply a moron (as someone who graduated with an English degree, I am offended by her portrayal), and Christian is a sociopath. Perhaps this is more on the actors than the characters. Johnson doesn’t seem capable of doing much more than biting her lip, and Dornan might simply naturally look like a shifty-eyed weirdo.

I found the film’s attempts at developing a relationship between these two unintentionally funny, but a portion of the audience I saw it with found plenty of humor in the sex scenes. This confused me. I can see being bored by the scenes, but I didn’t find much humor in them. The laughter I heard was reminiscent of junior high kids seeing a sex scene they’re not “allowed” to see. It was nervous “I don’t know what else to do” laughter. I don’t know if that means the movie was a failure for the women in the audience or not. This film has been set up to be the steamy movie event of the year, yet all I heard was laughter. I will admit that I do not fully understand women or know exactly what they want (especially when it comes to romance in movies), but I can’t imagine they want to laugh. Or maybe they do. I will say this, despite the opinions the audience might leave with, it appeared that the majority had a good time.

That’s all Fifty Shades of Grey is, really: an excuse for women to have some fun at the movies. This was never going to be some transcendent cinematic sexual experience. It’s an event movie aimed at an older female audience, and there’s nothing wrong with that since we live in a world in which the only big movie events are aimed at fanboys and teenagers. That said, not all women are going to enjoy this one even as an event. People showing up to see what the fuss is about are going to leave even more confused about the phenomenon.


As for me, I’m glad I saw it because I had no idea it would inspire this much analysis from me. I thought my review would be: “Not for me, but women might like it.” That’s still partly my review, but I came away with a lot more to write about than I expected. So as a social/movie experiment, Fifty Shades of Grey is a success. As an actual movie, it’s an overlong, mostly boring sex-filled tonal mess about two bland characters trying to figure out if they should be in a relationship. Will they or won’t they? Who cares? But one things for sure, we’ll be finding out in the two inevitable sequels. I’m not sure I’ll be taking part in any further experiments with this franchise, though.