There’s a scene somewhere between the sixth and ninth hour of “Fifty Shades Darker” where a guy pushes Ana (Dakota Johnson, “How to Be Single”) against the wall, corners her, refuses to let her leave and begs her to have sex with him. Ana kicks him in the crotch, runs out and everyone in the audience cheers. Two scenes later, the exact same thing happens only it’s with Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan, “The 9th Life of Louis Drax”) instead of a random dude. Except this time, she doesn’t violently injure him, she just goes along with it and we’re all super happy because he loves her, I guess?
We know all this already, though, don’t we? We know how messed up and abusive this relationship is and how much it sucks that Hollywood and the world glorifies it. And yet, despite going in knowing how coercive and manipulative Christian Grey is, “Fifty Shades Darker” is still deeply upsetting.
The film picks up several weeks after the first one ended. The couple has been separated for a while because the last time they were together, Christian beat Ana with a belt and she promptly ran away. But it’s OK now because he’s changed, you see, and he’ll totally never do it again. So Ana happily reunites with Christian, whose favorite ways of showing his affection are by telling her what to wear, eat, who to speak to, what to do, how to think, and of course, by forbidding (forbidding!) her from going on important work trips. But it’s OK, see, because he loves her and buys her beautiful dresses and they have lots of sex.
There’s a subplot where one of Christian’s old sex partners stalks him and violently threatens Ana, and the way he subdues her — the sheer power he has over her — is maybe the creepiest thing about the movie. It leaves one thinking that this movie would maybe work better as a deeply disturbed psychological thriller, only it still wouldn’t be very good. This subplot is resolved in the first half of the movie, but it’s hard to say exactly what happens to fill the remaining hour, because the movie thuds gracelessly from scene to scene. After about 20 minutes, the characters fall into a horribly depressing routine: get dressed up, go to a fancy party, have sex, fight, have sex, sort of talk about the cause of the fight but not really because there’s another party to get to. As you’d imagine, this gets old really fast, and, as a result, a two-hour movie feels like it’s 60 years long.
Even the parts that are supposed to be decent are miserable. The first “Fifty Shades” movie’s soundtrack received a lot of attention and acclaim, but its sequel’s selection of pop songs isn’t nearly as strong. The soundtrack does the movie a disservice because it makes the “plot” even more predictable. Happy scenes of Christian and Ana having sex go with pop songs, sad scenes go with forgettable scored music. It makes the whole enterprise feel even more rote and familiar than it already did.
The one saving grace is Dakota Johnson. Most of the cast seems like they really, really don’t want to be there, but Johnson, bless her heart, really does try. She has a subtle sense of comic timing that helps make her character far more likeable than she was in the first film, and gives her that much more agency. With Johnson’s help, the movie is actually kind of funny, but the kind of funny that sort of makes you wonder how the hell you ended up here and why bad things happen to good people.
Leaving the theater after seeing “Fifty Shades Darker” has the viewer feeling like a slightly worse person than they were before. It’s not so much that it’s an incompetently made movie, it’s more that, for a movie that’s marketed to women as a sexy night of excitement, it’s such a bummer. The issue I take with it isn’t just that it’s offensive (and it is deeply offensive), it’s that it’s boring. And for a movie that’s supposed to be all about provocation, I can’t imagine anything worse.