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Film Review Fifty Shades of Grey

In this image released by Universal Pictures and Focus Features, Dakota Johnson, left, and Jamie Dornan appear in a scene from "Fifty Shades of Grey." (AP Photo/Universal Pictures and Focus Features)

Sow’s ear, meet silk purse.

E.L. James’ “Fifty Shades of Grey” is a trashy and laughably bad book about bondage that has sold more copies in three years than Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s collected works have sold since 1846. That’s a crime, and the punishment is being inflicted on all of us, as we’re being threatened with a film trilogy as well as countless blog musings about the meaning of masochism in modern relationships.

Yet there’s some good news for those who aren’t quite ready to enter the dungeon. The movie version of “Fifty Shades” is better than the book. It’s still awful, but when a filmmaker starts with stupid source material, he’s handcuffed.

Or in this case, it’s a she. Director Sam Taylor-Johnson made the smart, sensitive film “Nowhere Boy” about John Lennon’s love for his estranged mother, and she proves to be a good choice for burnishing this femme-centric potboiler. Reportedly she and James clashed on the set, and some of the book’s steamier scenes, including one involving a tampon, were left to molder on the cutting-room floor.

What we get instead is a parody of romance-novel plotting. Sporting the kind of name you’d find only in a fantasy, shy Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson, daughter of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith) is a student at Washington State University who drives 90 miles to Seattle to interview hunky young billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) for the school newspaper. He’s an utter tool, the kind of poker-faced pretty boy who repeatedly calls her “Miss Steele” and finishes her sentences for her. Yet Anastasia later raves to her roommate (Eloise Mumford, playing a hard-partying valedictorian) that the handsome hotshot is so “courteous” and “clean.”

Actually, he’s quite dirty, but only the most special woman gets to enter his “playroom.”

It’s both easy and pointless to ponder the social implications of a story about a billionaire who gets his jollies from flogging a penniless innocent. (Christian actually cheers when he learns that Anastasia is a virgin.)

This is soft-core commercialism without a trace of real-world relevance.

Taylor-Johnson stokes the flames for the female audience with lugubrious music and innumerable shots of Anastasia biting her lower lip as Christian guides her toward the slaughterhouse as if she were a veal calf with a ring in her nose.

“Fifty Shades” is hardly the first mainstream movie about bondage. But unlike the imports “Nymphomaniac” or “Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down,” there’s nothing subversive or scary about it.

Taylor-Johnson gives us lots of exquisitely lit scenes of the shirtless Christian binding and banging Anastasia like a Cinemax stud.

But the likably coy Johnson has no chemistry with the dreary, self-serious Dornan. He’s a casting disaster, and no amount of backstory trauma can explain his character’s obsession with a mousy student whose only personality attribute is a lack thereof.

Notwithstanding Christian’s private helicopter, his penthouse and his fleet of Ferraris, it’s not remotely plausible that this dim-witted creep is a tech billionaire. If he were, he could teach the producers of this misbegotten project a core principle of software programming: “Garbage in, garbage out.”


What “Fifty Shades of Grey” • Two stars out of four • Rating R • Run time 2:07 • Content Strong sexual content including dialogue, some unusual behavior and graphic nudity, and for language

Joe Williams is the film critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.