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Review: 'Fifty Shades of Grey' sexy enough, better than the book (w/video)

Dakota Johnson, left, and Jamie Dornan star in Fifty Shades of Grey.
Dakota Johnson, left, and Jamie Dornan star in Fifty Shades of Grey.
Published Feb. 15, 2015

It is finally here, the swooningly anticipated movie version of Fifty Shades of Grey, the book that millions read but far fewer were caught doing it.

And you know what? Director Sam Taylor-Johnson's movie isn't nearly as terrible as E.L. James' novel would make you expect. There's perverted, like the sado-masochistic sex games played by tycoon Christian Grey, and then there's perverse, like the pleasure of watching trash so glossily compacted.

Christian (Jamie Dornan) made his fortune doing something unexplained, except he shouts on a cellphone about 24-hour ultimatums. It's a lush, lonely existence with a single, sensual palette: gray suits, ties and luxury cars. Christian probably pays God to keep the Seattle skies outside his penthouse the color of slate. He is, in the parlance of our time, quite the catch.

But there's a catch. Christian is one chainsaw shy of American Psycho, with an S&M playroom and a sexual history that might make Sigmund Freud weep. Not the most interesting man in the world, but certainly among the kinkiest.

Dornan also plays a serial killer on BBC's The Fall, and there's a dash of Dexter in his deadpan perversion here. He never takes himself too handsomely, even when undressed. Despite Christian's dominance, Dornan is an anatomically correct sex doll with bling accessories for Taylor-Johnson to pose and sighing viewers to take home in their dreams. Don't take him seriously and nobody gets hurt.

Into Christian's fabulously wealthy world tumbles Anastasia (Dakota Johnson), a college senior helping her sick roomie with a campus newspaper project. He immediately spots her as a potential submissive who will bend to his kinky desires. Something about the way she shyly pokes her lips with the pencil he loans her, the one with his name embossed on it. Chicks dig that.

Before long, Christian is impressing Ana with expensive gifts and helicopter rides. He proposes that she move in with him, into a bedroom she can't leave without his permission, waiting for his command to be sexually dominated to the point of needing a safe word. There's some paperwork to fill out. It's complicated.

That's when Fifty Shades of Grey finally gets around to the reason we're here, the naughty, nekkid parts that James' readers dog-eared. Not all of them, of course, or else Lars von Trier could make two movies. An R rating for the adaptation of a triple-X book is a clue to the rough stuff skipped.

Still, Taylor-Johnson and her actors go further than usual for a major studio production, in skin, spanking and thrusts. Soft core porn, filmed prettier than life. Christian's infamous Red Room displays far more intimidating sadism tools than the script employs. There's a gentle hand on the riding crop, and all but six spanks (Ana counts them) are just love taps.

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Johnson is the best thing about Fifty Shades of Grey, an average beauty with awkward allure: the girl imprisoned next door. The actor and screenwriter Kelly Marcel make Ana less of a pushover than James wrote. She holds her own with Christian in the movie's best non-erotic scenes, a contract negotiation over what can be put where and when, and a blackout cliffhanger that had viewers groaning from premature evacuation.

Those moments put Ana on equal footing with Christian, even when she's strapped down prone. That's vital to any movie romance, with or without the flogs. Fifty Shades of Grey isn't the howling pornucopia it could be, but it's sexy enough, spank you very much.

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

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