There’s a moment early in “Fifty Shades Freed” — the final chapter in that most venerated saga of smut — where Anastasia Grey (Dakota Johnson, “How to Be Single”) takes off her bikini top and utters the words, “It’s boobs in boobland.” I did what amounted to an aural double-take. Surely no one had written that line. Someone had to have said something. I looked around to gauge the reactions of those around me. They sat transfixed by the glow of the IMAX screen, like sexually starved deer in the quasi-pornographic headlights. I steeled myself and joined them. I was in trouble.
Until a short time ago, I prided myself on having never seen a “Fifty Shades” movie. It’s not that I had a problem with their audience, I just always assumed that if I walked up to a box office and said to another human being, “One for ‘Fifty Shades,’” the parts of my soul not shattered by “The Emoji Movie” would simply disintegrate. It was self-preservation more than anything else. I just wasn’t as steeped in the “Fifty Shades” mythos as I am, say, “Star Wars” or “The Room.” I knew the basic “boy meets girl, boy introduces girl to poorly represented BDSM” beats of the story, and that’s it.
Then, last Sunday, I mentioned to my editor that I had seen “Fifty Shades Freed” was playing in IMAX and was more morbidly curious than I’d ever been. This was taken as me volunteering to write about it, and it was unanimously decided by a jury of my peers that I would be sent to document “Fifty Shades Freed: The IMAX 2D Experience.” Some small part of me expected it to include a scratch-and-sniff.
My ticket was ordered online, so I had only to deal with the judgment of the usher, who took it and glanced up at me, her brow furrowed. I tried to smile at her. That seemed to make it worse. She handed my stub back to me, and I had to fight the urge to sprint past her. I timed my entrance to the theater so that I took my seat after the lights went down, my hood pulled over my head like a Benedictine monk. Finally, the movie started.
To begin, I have to ask: In the era of #MeToo, did no one say, “What if we gave our main protagonist something even remotely resembling agency in her own story, or at least a higher IQ than your average Pauly Shore character? And hey, what if we make our male lead less sexually aggressive instead of constantly doubling down on his emotionally, mentally and physically abusive behavior?”
Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan, “The 9th Life of Louis Drax”) is the kind of man who at one point says to his wife, unironically, “If you love me, why do you defy me?” This is followed shortly by scenes where it seems “Fifty Shades Freed” is trying to make a statement on rape culture, even while Grey himself epitomizes the worst of it. It’s cinematic hypocrisy at its worst.
Not to worry, no sooner has the happy couple been married than they’re thrown headfirst into an out-of-nowhere thriller storyline that will provide the illusion of a plot when the characters aren’t busy sexing each other into oblivion. This leads to no less than two scenes where Ana, the woman who once had to ask what a butt plug is, has to act as a getaway driver. These moments, and many others, are accompanied by one of the most invasive, cloying soundtracks I’ve ever heard; the parts of the film that don’t play like the beginning of a mid-budget porno play instead like the worst parts of a car commercial and a music video.
It wasn’t an entirely joyless experience. On three separate occasions, I found myself giggling so hard I had to physically stifle my laughter. The first of these was my fault, as a sex scene accompanied by an attempt at a “sexy cover” of James Brown’s “I Feel Good” caused me to picture the same scene dubbed over by the original version. This was cancelled out by the woman behind me starting to moan moments later. The second time came when someone described Ana as “tenacious” after she spent the entire movie being shuffled around by the manufactured drivel of the plot. Finally came the scene in which Ana describes Christian as a “man of honor.” This time I didn’t even try to hold my laughter in.
Both of these dunces immediately assume that whenever their partner spends time with a member of the opposite sex, they’re cheating. That’s not marriage; that’s high school, and they never change. As the end credits roll, these are the same reprehensible people we started with, yet the movie is hellbent on convincing its audience that this, this is what true love looks like. “Fifty Shades Freed” is toxic. It’s harmful. It’s awful. It lacks any sort of self-awareness or redeemable qualities. “Tenacious?” “Man of honor?” Give me a damn break.