Starring Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Eric Johnson, Marcia Gay Harden and Kim Basinger. Screenplay by Niall Leonard. Directed by James Foley.

What’s most astonishing, to me anyways, is just how little happens in this thing. I forget when I first heard the term “middle movie” as an excuse for a franchise’s second installment not having a beginning, middle or an end but apparently now semi-literate erotica paperbacks mimic the worst aspects of blockbuster cinema. This film even has a mid-credits teaser for the sequel, like it’s fucking Iron Man or something.

When we last saw our plucky heroine Anastasia Steele, she’d just bid farewell to her domineering billionaire boyfriend Christian Grey after he got a bit too carried away with his kinks and what began as a goofy, sex-positive romp had degenerated into puritanical scolding. After by all accounts a tumultuous production with departures from the source material that displeased author E.L. James, director Sam Taylor-Johnson and screenwriter Kelly Marcel were dismissed from the sequels. The latter was replaced by James’ husband, with directorial duties going to James Foley. This is only one of the most improbably popular female fantasies of all time, so by all means bring in the dudes.

The meager extent to which Fifty Shades Darker is of interest is mainly to see how much more ludicrous James’ machinations appear through the male gaze. Whereas before the dowdy Anastasia didn’t shave her legs before a big date, now she sleeps in garters and a thong. Director Foley –long since fallen from the early brilliance of his At Close Range and Glengarry Glen Ross— at least once upon a time helmed the deliriously trashy Wahlberg-stalking-Witherspoon nineties teensploitation classic Fear, utilizing a skillset one assumes would’ve come in handy here. Alas, his attempt to mimic the movie magic of Marky Mark finger-banging Reese on a rollercoaster to the tune of “Wild Horses” stuffs Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson into a crowded elevator with “Moondance” playing to considerably less erotic effect.

There’s an awful lot of missionary position in this movie, the plentiful sex scenes directed as if all involved just want to get it overwith already. What passes for a story is merely the introduction and positioning of characters like Christian’s old cougar flame (Kim Basinger) or Ana’s jealous former boss (Eric Johnson) for payoffs I presume will arrive in the next film, as the moment it feels like something’s finally going to happen here Fifty Shades Darker cuts to closing credits.

Dakota Johnson remains way too good for this material, occasionally unable to suppress giggles at the storyline’s silliness yet gamely going along with it in a way that’s awfully fun to watch. One of the more delightfully absurd flourishes finds Anastasia abruptly promoted to publishing executive and Johnson responds by reciting one of her mom Melanie Griffith’s monologues from Working Girl. It might be the sexiest scene in the movie.


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