Thursday, February 22, 2018
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Review: '50 Shades Darker' light on plotty, heavy on naughty

Fifty Shades Darker is what you'd expect from encoring a regrettable one-night stand. Not a keeper, but nothing to gnaw off your arm about.

Compacted from E.L. James' trashy novel, Fifty Shades Darker continues the sexual odyssey of Anastasia Steele, again played by Dakota Johnson although wishier-washier than the woman who slammed an elevator door in her kinky lover's face at first movie's end.

And what a face. Jamie Dornan as unfathomably wealthy Christian Grey is what women supposedly desire; abs with dreamy eyes and deep pockets. At one point he impressively planks on a kitchen counter but I'd like to think it's CGI. Christian hasn't taken Ana's rejection well, wearing his heart on his wallet by purchasing an entire art exhibit of photos of her. Sigh.

Of course, Ana will succumb to Christian's charms but only on flimsier terms than her underwear. No questions, no secrets, no "kinky eff-ery," as Ana more profanely describes Christian's brand of foreplay. But then there would be no movie and Fifty Shades Darker is already struggling on that count.

The unexpected literary success of Fifty Shades of Grey led to James' publisher paying for a sequel she hadn't planned. Fifty Shades Darker on film exposes a slapdash narrative of Christian's closet skeletons and Ana's inner insistence that she can change his BDSM ways. Outwardly she's like: "But you have needs," and he's like: "I need you more." Swoon.

James' novel is submissively adapted by her husband Niall Leonard, hewing closer to her Harlequin dialogue than Kelly Marcel's first movie adaptation. Marcel made Ana steelier, less naive in her curiosity; here she regresses, apparently forgetting what the first book/movie taught her about her boyfriend's habits. Her dumbing down may also be due to having a man (James Foley) rather than a woman (Sam Taylor-Johnson) in the director's chair this time.

Still, Fifty Shades Darker persists in attempting to establish a plot, tossing around ideas wrapped up in a scene or two. Academy Award winners Marcia Gay Harden and Kim Basinger barely register as Christian's mother and her best friend, the cougar who sexually trained him. What could be hellcat fun is settled with a slap. Christian's former submissive and current stalker (Bella Heathcote) is told to sit and stays. Christian crashes a helicopter and shows up barely scratched, not even a bedside vigil.

The good stuff in Fifty Shades Darker? It's the sex, just like any zipless hook-up. That's when Foley can unbuckle the leather restraints of James' and now Leonard's writing and get down to softcore business. Johnson and Dornan appear to enjoy their jobs, physically toned and photographed for freeze-frame inspiration. Foley's movie surpasses Fifty Shades of Grey in flashes and thrusts, still prettier than sex truly is but something to which we can aspire.

Christian's hanky-spanky doesn't get too out of hand, despite his home depot of bondage and sado-masochism tools. One brief moment gets the dirty right, when Christian tosses Ana over his shoulder, marching to the bedroom with a telescoping ankle spreader while his housekeeper giggles. That's a fun touch this movie needs more often.

Stick around through the end credits for a glimpse of Fifty Shades Freed, the finale slated for a February 2018 release. Non-spoiler alert: Ana and Christian get married. Let's see what that does for their sex lives.

Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

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