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Movie review: 'Fifty Shades Darker' is too silly to be sexy

| Thursday, Feb. 9, 2017, 2:06 p.m.

The “Fifty Shades of Grey” book and film franchise positions itself as naughty soft-core eroticism for female audiences, but it's hard to find anything all that arousing when laughing this hard. The second installment, “Fifty Shades Darker,” is pure camp. Audiences will be in ecstasy alright — from hysterical laughter. While decidedly not a comedy, there are times when you have to wonder if the film is in on the joke. Star Dakota Johnson definitely seems to be.

Johnson's subversive and sly knowingness is what makes her performance deceptively great. At first her shrinking violet act is irritating, the human embodiment of a Buzzfeed introvert listicle, until you realize that her flushed and whispery routine is part of a whole thing. She's committed, and seems far smarter than the material.

The plot of “Darker” is fairly mundane, centered around the reunion of Ana and her dominant partner, Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), a young billionaire with a playroom that'll make you blush. As an independent young woman who “loves working,” Ana's got her reservations about being truly submissive, and therein lies their conundrum. Truth be told, they're both intensely boring people who don't have any hobbies outside of sex, and their relationship is a snooze.

Speaking of the sex, despite the expensive accessories, it's pretty tame. Most of it is orchestrated around female pleasure, but staged for the male gaze, so it's a bit confusing about how we're supposed to enjoy it. The entire “Fifty Shades” canon has been authored by women until now: from E.L. James' pulpy novels, to the source text for her erotic fan fiction, “Twilight” by Stephanie Meyer. And women were behind the camera and the screenplay for “Fifty Shades of Grey.” With women in charge, it helps navigate the trickiness of equating sexual submission and female desire, positioning it as an empowered pleasure and not porny degradation.

But Ana has to work overtime as both sexual object and subject. Christian isn't sexy, and the camera seems to have no interest in him as an object. Dornan's good looks are hidden under a layer of puff and scruff, and though he's not a bad actor, he's completely lacking in charisma here, playing Grey with all the charm of a sociopathic frat boy. Even his concessions to loving commitment are commands. Some romance.

Despite “Grey” raking in more than $100 million at the box office, “Grey” director Sam Taylor-Johnson has been bounced for director James Foley, with a script by E.L. James' husband Niall Leonard. Things don't bode well for third installment “Fifty Shades Freed” with these two onboard, as the writing and directing here is simply terrible.

There is no emotional through-line that makes sense from scene to scene, or even within single scenes themselves. Ana will chide Christian or they'll fight, and then the next moment she'll lovingly comfort him. They never seem to be on the same page, or even in the same conversation, and therefore their love story is a complete sham.

The last third of the film descends straight into a combination of “Dynasty” with shades of cult classic “The Room.” It's fantastic because it's complete and utter silly madness. Helicopter crashes! Slaps! Drinks thrown in faces! Fully clothed shower sex! A framed “Chronicles of Riddick” poster! All the makings of an instant cult classic.

Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service movie critic

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