There are a number of reasons not to read the Fifty Shades books. Between the offensively bad prose, the terrible depiction of BDSM, the questionable handling of the issue of consent, and the uncomfortable knowledge that millions of lonely housewives used them to fill the aching void of abandonment, one could make the argument that they deserve to be struck from the record and erased from history. It's only natural, then, that my female companion loves them.
Fortunately for our relationship, she knows better than to try to make me read them. Unfortunately, Rogue One scarred her for life, so I got stuck watching the movies.
Ordinarily, this is the point where any competent reviewer would introduce the characters and give you a little rundown of the plot. I, however, am not a competent reviewer, and there's not much of a plot. Pretty young woman meets pretty young billionaire, they have lots of kinky sex, there's enough token drama to keep it from being a straight skin flick, the end. Not much to tell, really.
The first movie is a masterclass in how not to make a romance. It's bad. Real bad. The leads have chemistry, but it's less "star crossed lovers" and more spoiled milk. The much hyped sex scenes were as limp and flaccid as the, er, you get the point. Noting to write home about, is what I'm saying. And while it neatly sidestepped the issue of consent by not addressing it at all, the male lead is seriously creepy. I kept expecting the Law and Order: SVU theme to start playing. Needless to say, I breathed a sigh of relief when the credits rolled, and then got my world rocked in such a way that I sort of forgot most of the details moments later. Clearly, she enjoyed it.
I was dreading seeing Fifty Shades Darker, but there was no escape. At all. "Remember John Wick?" she asked, a manic gleam in her eye. "Remember the puppy, you bastard?" Yes, yes I did. That will hang over my head for a long, long time.
At any rate, the movie started, and to my surprise I found myself laughing. Not often and not a lot, but not solely in an embarrassed sort of way, either. Somewhere along the way, Fifty Shades Darker discovered that it had a heart.
What changed?
Honestly, not a lot. I mean, the plot is still basically just there because the studio said they had to have one. It's neither exciting nor memorable. There are one or two tense moments, but you never really worry. There was a genuinely satisfying moment towards the end where someone got what was coming to them, and it's amusing in an abstract sort of way to watch a billionaire destroy someone who earned it, but these moments couldn't save it.
The sex is still there, and it's still kinda meh. They toned down the kink a bit, which actually makes things a little more bearable. It's still present, but it's as perfunctory as the plot. The actors looked like they were having a little more fun this go round, but it still came across as fake. At one point, my lady friend commented that the guy must not have been very good at what he was doing, because the woman was still on her feet, and apparently the knees are the first things to go during that particular act. Still, they spend a lot of time in various stages of undress, and they're both pretty good at it. Being naked, that is. They're both pretty to look at, and if one isn't your preferred gender, well, despair not, because they both get about the same screentime.
I don't really think the chemistry has changed much since the last film. It's still less epic romance and more curdling milk. However, the actors and the director seem to have realized that this go round. Instead of trying to sell us on the idea of this magical romance for the ages, they take the curdling milk and resolve to at least get some decent cheese out of it. And you know what? It kinda works.
Instead of fated lovers, we get two people trying to muddle through the first real healthy relationship they've ever really had. They're awkward and corny and occasionally sweet. The guy is still a controlling weirdo, but the girl has a lot more agency this go round, and learns to stick up for herself in a meaningful way. She makes it clear that she will not be owned, and he seems to listen. He's clearly uncomfortable with the idea of a relationship of equals, but over the course of the film, he comes to terms with the fact that he's going to have to get used to the idea if he wants to keep her around. It's not easy for either of them to figure it out, but they try. It's in these moments that the film finds its heart, and while they don't quite redeem it, they do make it bearable.
Is Fifty Shades Darker worth the ticket price? Eh, kinda. It's not the worst thing I've ever paid to see, and you could do worse for a date night movie. And once we got back home and behind closed doors, it was an investment that paid off nicely.