It would be really simple to just dismiss Fifty Shades Darker right off the bat. Clearly it wasn't made with me in mind, nor were any of the novels written thinking about what I hope to get out of them. But that would be cutting it so much slack I might as well give it a safe word. Fifty Shades Darker deserves every ounce of pain inflicted upon it for coming THIS CLOSE to being superior to its frigid predecessor, however an incredible lack of stakes, drama, and passion have doomed it to the kiddie table.
Unfairly gorgeous stars Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson famously didn't get along very well last time, and *SHOCKER* they don't have any chemistry when forced to work together again. That's not to knock their individual performances....well, okay, maybe Dornan's who continues to be stiff as a board. He gives the legitimately talented Johnson little to work with as hot sexual sadist Christian Grey, who now sports a mean 5 o'clock shadow to show how distressed he is over losing Anastasia Steele at the prior movie's end. He pushed their sexual adventures a little too far and freaked out; got her dream job at a Seattle publishing house, and moved on with her life. Just kidding, no she didn't. Within five minutes of Christian showing up at her artist friend's gallery (Where pictures of Ana are everywhere, because obviously!), she has forgiven him. He wants to "negotiate new terms", which is a pickup line that would only work for billionaires who look like Jamie Dornan.
Christian's down with living a vanilla existence (She even buys him vanilla ice cream! So on-the-nose this friggin' script.) if it means keeping Ana around, but of course he's still a possessive sonovubitch. She got mad once and walked out for three whole hours and you'd think she had been gone for a year he freaked out so much. He interferes in every aspect of her life, just as before, and while she nominally protests it's all just for show. The normal reaction to finding out your boyfriend has a complete dossier on you is to have sex with him, right? That's how it works?
As a result there is practically zero drama or tension to be found within Ana and Christian's relationship. They were bland before in Fifty Shades of Grey when supposedly they were through-the-roof erotic. Now they are bland again, only it's intentional. On the plus side, the sex they do have is a lot more fun this time, and Christian breaks out every item in his Red Room to try out on her, sometimes in public. There's some nice banter between them about this $24K he's forced into her bank account...until you realize she should be upset that he knows her bank account number. Creepy! And at times they genuinely seem happy and like a normal couple. The way Ana says "kinky fuckery" is super adorable. Christian's reaction kills the mood, but oh well. Sex doesn't seem like a contractual obligation this time (This from the "negotiate new terms" folks), but on the flipside they don't come across as particularly interesting people. And that's why screenwriter Niall Leonard, who happens to be the husband of author E.L. James (And her handpicked successor to Kelly Marcel) places momentary obstacles in Christian and Ana's path. There's a mystery surrounding one of his old submissives (a shaggy Bella Heathcote) who could pose a danger; and Kim Basinger stirs up trouble as Elena, the woman who broke Christian's BDSM cherry. Then there's Ana's boss, Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), who needs a refresher course on sexual harassment, STAT. None of these things amount to much narratively, but the worst offender is a final act accident that should cause an emotional whirlwind throughout all of the characters. It's wrapped up with such comical ease you'd think a commercial break was coming up.
Glengarry Glen Ross director James Foley picks up the mantle from Sam Taylor-Johnson, who fled rather than deal with E.L. James's badgering again. Foley's a solid filmmaker but on something like this he's simply there to do the job of pointing the camera at Dornan's abs (Which are occasionally drawn over in red crayon for reasons best left unspoiled, but very silly.) and Johnson's ass, which is frequently spanked. Of the few demands placed on Fifty Shades Darker, granting the audience some eye candy is the easiest to achieve and the most important. Expect him to show up and do the same for the "anticipated" finale, Fifty Shades Freed, unless he negotiates new terms.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5