For all the talk of Hollywood smut rotting the moral fabric of society, it's worth noting that, when the public demanded the industry embrace a franchise whose only claim to fame was smut, it chose instead to keep things squeaky-clean.
Fifty Shades of Grey, the first book in E.L. James's massively popular trilogy of BDSM-lite erotica that began life as Twilight fanfiction, gave Universal Pictures a golden ticket to push the boundaries of sex in mainstream cinema. Lord knows the fanbase wasn't clamoring for the story. Yet when Sam Taylor-Johnson's adaptation hit theaters in 2015, it submitted too much: to studio insistence not to push the film past an R rating; to James's limp, insipid plotting (though not, blessedly, to her grotesque ear for dialogue); and, ironically for a movie whose pivotal scene is a contract negotiation, to a stipulation in lead Jamie Dornan's contract that the audience would never see laconic ubermensch Christian Grey's uber-appendage. In short, the film was impotent.
Now the contracts are out again for the sequel, Fifty Shades Darker, and they must have been extra-long because it was filmed back-to-back with a concluding entry set to hit theaters next year. Dornan and Dakota Johnson, as the once-virginal, now corrupted college grad Anastasia Steele, have returned, as have their mostly nude bodies — beholden to the same magic camera keeping her parts on full display while leaving his out of frame. But Taylor-Johnson is out, having reached a creative impasse with James that was likely far more emotionally intense than the chemistry between Johnson and Dornan. In her place is James Foley, whose varied filmography includes relevant romance thrillers like Fear and After Dark, My Sweet as well as Glengarry Glen Ross, another film about folks desperate to, shall you say, get down to business.
The second film is marginally better than the first, because it's marginally kinkier. Whereas in more innocent times Ana ran out on her billionaire beau as soon as he exposed her to his whipping side, here she lets him guide her (and us) to far more insidious activities, including a bit with beads at a masked ball recalling the far smarter recent arthouse hit The Handmaiden. True deviance may remain outside the range of shades visible to this franchise, but at least Foley gets to shoot these escapades coherently, without the endless fade-ins and fade-outs that flogged the first entry's attempts to titillate. (We still have to make do with Johnson's parade of arched backs and flabbergasted O-faces as our only roadmap of the actual dirty deeds, but hey, it beats hearing about Ana's "inner goddess.")
After walking out on her man at the end of the previous film with a gesture that redefined "anticlimactic," Ana has landed an assistant job at a Seattle indie publisher. But she slowly allows herself to be pulled back into Christian's orbit, once the businessman makes clear he no longer has any interest in the dominance contract he spent the entire first movie pestering her to sign. As Ana lets Christian back into her life, despite her efforts to maintain her stature as an independent woman, she can't put a cork on his need to dominate her every move: The man deposits large sums into her bank account without permission, has his company buy hers to give himself power over her place of work, and provides her with an endless wardrobe of top-line designers for the aforementioned masquerade. Even when she fends off her boss's advances and takes his place as the publisher's fiction editor, she only does so with Christian's aid: one male CEO calls another, and suddenly the young woman's sexual harassment horror story can be believed.
These tweakings of relationship power dynamics are intriguing, especially once Ana internalizes all this and still chooses to venture into her boyfriend's infamous "Red Room" herself. But the film soon sidelines them for a way-too-detailed look into Christian's past, a.k.a., "Why am I turned on by weird stuff? There must be a simple psychological reason." All the burn marks on his chest, the entirely unconvincing moans he makes in his sleep (Dornan remains as charismatic as an ironing board) — they point to a childhood characterized by paternal abuse, an addict mother who died young, and an icy older friend who saw fit to molest him as a teenager, thereby informing his lifelong approach to women. This she-devil, Elena Lincoln, is given the obvious nickname "Mrs. Robinson," and is played with a small flicker of Anne Bancroft-esque camp by Kim Basinger. "He needs a submissive in life, not just in the bedroom," she growls at Ana, words of true emotional heft if ever any existed.
Mixing elegance with filth onscreen is not an easy feat, and production designer Nelson Coates is to be commended for deftly balancing both. The fairy-tale silliness of a masked ball blends with the infantilizing sensation of doing the nasty on your man's childhood bed; the open-air wonders of a boat sailing through Puget Sound clashes with the full, lurid kink arsenal of the Red Room. But none of this can cover up the essential thinness of James's books, already stretched like gruel by the halfway point, when the narrative starts sagging uncontrollably. (The screenwriter this go-around, Niall Leonard, is James's husband.) False dramas perk up, then fade away. One of Christian's former submissives (Bella Heathcote) appears, then vanishes, to demonstrate how this bad boy drove all his old lovers mad. A death scare in a helicopter is far too silly to be anything other than a time-waster. This series, we are learning, is not truly for adults. If it were, we could do away with the plot-stretching, money-grubbing tendencies more common among the youth-skewing book adaptations (like, er, Twilight).
So Darker, like its predecessor, barely qualifies as a movie. But it's not meant to be a movie, is it? What we have is Hollywood-sanctioned softcore: Story of O with a Taylor Swift theme song. And while the sequel may be dirtier than the first one, in the world this series seeks to inhabit, it's still child's play. Perhaps Fifty Shades Freed will venture even more into the world of smut, but the good money's on Universal getting out of the game without fully giving into its inner goddess. Might as well hang up the whips now.