2018 | rated R | starring Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan | directed by James Foley | 1 hr 45 mins |
Like it’s spiritual parent, Twilight, the Fifty Shades of Grey series came to a perfectly satisfying ending in it’s penultimate film – and then kept going. In the unintentionally funny Fifty Shades Darker, S&M-loving millionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) finally succumbed to Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), dropped to one knee and popped the question giving her the chance to lock down that jet-setting lifestyle. The End, right? Nope, because we’re told all epic stories must be told in trilogies Fifty Shades Freed takes us into the dull married life of Hollywood’s two most chemistry-free, passionless, will-they or will-they-again lovers. Jesus.
As with Fifty Shades Darker, it’s unclear what Christian sees in Anastasia that makes him bring her into his life and it’s unclear what Anastasia sees in Christian that makes her look past a communist parade’s worth of red flags pointing at his controlling abusive tendencies. This movie opens with two dust-ups between the two, one where Anastasia wants to go topless on a topless beach and Christian forbids it and another where he loses his mind because she didn’t immediately change her post-marriage work email to Anastasia Grey. This is where we are supposed to talk about how toxic their relationship is and how they are constantly in little spats because they never talk things out (they start to talk babies well into their first year of marriage), but honestly who cares anymore. That’s what the studio wants us to do. That engages with the movie more than it warrants.
The movie hasn’t thought about that stuff. If it did we would have a story arc where Anastasia tries to change Christian or maybe one where she starts to become as domineering as him. Between these two movies we were gifted with Paul Thomas Anderson’s terrific Phantom Thread which told a far richer and more interesting version of this theme, where a domineering man sparks a change in his wife for the stronger, and did it in 2 1/2 hours instead of 6.
More than Phantom Thread, what else flamed up during this series’ run was a rise in putting movies under the microscope of gender politics. Obviously, Anastasia isn’t a strong female character, but women flock to these movies. The movie is itself caught in the contradiction of being a transparent hypergamy fantasy, as shallow as any macho male fantasy but also simultaneously a feminist rallying cry (chicks love sex and fast cars too). In one scene Anastasia gives the maid the night off so she can cook for her husband and then when Christian says he could get used to that, she immediately snaps at him for wanting her barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen – then tells him she’s pregnant and gets mad he isn’t immediately thrilled. All in the span of 3 minutes.
Anastasia has no arc here and Fifty Shades Freed doesn’t have a smooth story at all, jutting from one episodic adventure after another. The couple’s baby fight, Anastasia’s attempts to keep her career on track amid constantly being swept away for vacations, the resurgence of her evil ex-boss looking for revenge, Christian’s orphanage backstory. Her friend’s boyfriend might be cheating – or sneaking around buying an engagement ring himself. There are a lot of setups without payoffs and payoffs without setups. It’s a conflict-free thriller one minute and a soft-core skin flick the next. Freed dials up the sex scenes, but between it’s casual nudity and obviously awkward encounters between Dornan and Johnson, sex has never been so dull. This movie doesn’t just feel long, it feels long at the 1 hour mark.
And while bloggers complain that anything geared toward women is immediately subject to a backlash and branded “uncool”, the most often cited cases are the worst possible examples – Twilight, The Hunger Games, Ghostbusters and Fifty Shades of Grey, all of which are objectively not very good nor very original while better, smaller female-led movies come out every year and go largely unnoticed. While this movie may not be built by committee for every demographic, it still feels built by committee for as many types of women it can think of and tries to shove them all into Anastasia. She’s the girly girl and the cool girl, high maintenance and laid back. Witty and submissive. We can all do a lot better than this empty, far-too-long, cold, calculated shell of a movie.