The best film about a guy who really, really wants to anally-fist a college student.

Based on the best-selling smutty trash, Fifty Shades Of Grey stars Dakota Johnson as the ready-for-porn-named Anastasia Steele, a budding college senior who by sheer chance finds herself interviewing and hitting it off with the richest, most powerful beefcake in all of Seattle who – despite his bland, vanilla demeanor – really wants to anally fist her. But before he can do so, he needs her to sign a contract ensuring the legality of his anal fisting. And so begins a two-hour long will they/won’t they between Anastasia and a piece of paperwork.
Going into the film I can’t really say I was excited for it, but I was definitely anticipating it. There was so much controversy and guffaw surrounding the material that I figured – even at its worst – it was going to be a fun movie to hate-watch, but weirdly enough, not even 30 minutes into the film I found myself actually liking what I was seeing. Scribe Kelly Marcel and director Sam Taylor-Johnson (Nowhere Boy) decidedly stripped the narrative down to its most basic elements, looking for new places to focus, new angles, and somehow ended up finding some genuine moments of sweetness and emotional clarity – all the while embracing the absurdity of its very existence. The book is bad. Everyone involved knows it. But instead of giving up, they chose to deconstruct it and find the interesting aspects, and I think, for the most part, they were successful.

Now, not having read the book in its entirety, I can’t fully speak to it as an adaptation, but from what I understand the central plot is mostly the same: cute, young virgin meets weirdo, disconnected stud with a dark, sexual secret. But gone are the gross, abusive undertones and gone are the inner goddesses and over-the-top sexual exploits. Taylor-Johnson instead chooses to focus on Anastasia’s power and agency. Her transformation from the shy, introvert to the defiant, powerful woman — her empowering journey of self-discovery, both sexually and worldly, as there are just as many scenes of her trying new things in the world as there are her trying new sex positions. There are real layers to her and what she wants and eventually gets out of this experimental relationship, and you can tell that’s where Taylor-Johnson’s heart is.

And I love that there is a semblance of real humanity and real romance, where two people are genuinely trying to discover and understand one another, but unfortunately these shifts in focus all but neuter the sexual exploits which, for many, were the sole draw of the film. There are certainly numerous, lengthy sex scenes in the film but for the most part they are pretty tame, vanilla, Hollywood-ized sex scenes. Nearly all of the nudity and sexual focus is on Dakota Johnson, which kind of threw me off considering the target-audience is clearly female. I mean, I guess I’m not sure what I was expecting. This is the MPAA we’re talking about – that group of

old prudes that are mostly ok with boobs but get their jimmies rustled over the very idea of a woman having an orgasm on screen – but sadly, trimming the insane sex acts just leaves us with some really, really boring sex that thinks it’s racy. Again, I appreciate finding and fitting a real story into the trash, but this is still trashy material – Fincher had the right idea when he doubled down on the trashy qualities of Gone Girl. One or two bedroom shocks might’ve been enough to give Fifty Shades a much stronger pulse.

But that being said, this is – surprisingly – still very much a real film with real things to say, so the fact that it’s not as scandalous or outrageous as the book wasn’t too disappointing to me. And the film is at least well-made. The cinematography by Seamus McGarvey – who just shot Godzilla last year – is sleek and well-composed. There weren’t a whole lot of interesting things for him to shoot (everything in the frame is varying levels of bland), but he nails the few bits that actually involve space and motion – the flying sequences are great.

And the leads do a commendable job as well. Jamie Dornan is cold and stiff as is required of a textbook creepy, fantasy beefcake – they even joke about him being a serial killer at one point and I was instantly reminded of Patrick Bateman for a moment, only I suppose Grey’s secret is a little less frightening (I say “little” because anal fisting? Really?). Dakota Johnson is terrific, though. She somehow finds a real person (that even behaves how a person might!!!) in this blank slate of a character – it’s really easy to see how this derived from Twilight fan-fiction – but Johnson is genuinely charming and funny, and brings little nuanced emotions to her moments of joy and defiance. She’s also an adooooooorable dancer.

Don’t get me wrong though – the film is definitely still silly – but everyone involved knows that. The cast and crew working on this film have far more contempt for the material than any of us ever could, playing many of the ridiculous moments up for exactly how ridiculous they are. I was surprised at how many times Anastasia reacted with a “whaaaaat?” at the exact same moments I was. They get it. They know the material is capital-D dumb, but the fact that they were willing to investigate that material and see why it’s speaking to so many people is incredibly admirable, and I enjoyed sifting through the garbage to find the realness – the human connection – and I think they found it. Anastasia is in an absurd, unrealistic situation with an absurd, unrealistic man, and I think it says a lot that only in this absurd, surreal fantasy can we get a studio movie about a girl safely discovering herself, her sexuality and her place and power in the world. That’s clearly an idea that connects with a large audience, and if it takes a stupid fantasy to get the big boys club in Hollywood willing to fund an interesting female-POV story written, adapted and directed by women I say all the power to them.

If anything, we need more movies like Fifty Shades Of Grey.