What does it say about an erotic drama when the most stimulating scenes are the ones where its heroine, Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), learns to assert herself and find her voice at the publishing firm where she works? Arriving a too-long two years after "Fifty Shades of Grey
" burned up the box-office charts but failed to live up to its steamy aspirations, "Fifty Shades Darker" is pretty much more of the samebut with a handful of contrived and tawdry new plot developments worthy of a daytime soap. Director James Foley (2007's "Perfect Stranger
") has made an aesthetically dashing film, but his slick know-how is no match for a dopey screenplay by Niall Leonard (adapting wife E.L. James' best-selling novel) that is frustratingly trite and never, not once, genuinely sexy.
Tired of living by billionaire beau Christian Grey's (Jamie Dornan) BDSM-centered relationship rules, Anastasia Steele has moved on and earned a job she loves as editor's assistant at Seattle Independent Press. Christian cannot stop thinking about her, however, and soon he is back in her life, pleading for a second chance and ready to renegotiate the terms of their aforementioned agreement. The new ones? "No rules. No punishments. No more secrets." For a damaged man with very specific tastes and childhood traumas he is still trying to work out, giving up his dominance and allowing Ana to be his equal partner is easier said than done. Making matters of the heart even more difficult are the appearances of two people from Christian's murky past: his unstable ex-submissive Leila (Bella Heathcote), whose envy has led her to begin stalking Ana, and Elena Lincoln (Kim Basinger), the sultry older woman who introduced him to this fetishistic subculture of bondage, dominance and sadomasochism when he was fifteen.
It's difficult to get behind a romance between two people who don't seem right for each other, and such is the case with the lovers at the center of "Fifty Shades Darker." Ana is intelligent, career-minded, and well-adjusted, but her independence is thwarted by Christian's domineering, possessive ways. He doesn't trust Ana, growing unreasonably jealous at every situation where she spends time with another man. "I don't like strangers gawking at you," he says within moments of reuniting with her at a gallery opening. When she is asked by her boss, Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), to accompany him on a business trip to NYC, Christian flatly tells her no. When Ana tears up a check for $24,000 made out to her, he wastes no time in getting on his phone and requesting this amount be transferred to her bank account. How, pray tell, did Christian get Ana's bank information? It turns out he hired a private investigator to follow her when he initially became interested, and has a folder stuffed to the gills with intel and covert photographs. Any sensible person would go running in the opposite direction, but Ana continues to be drawn to him, distracted, she says at one point, by his "kinky fuckery."
Dakota Johnson (2016's "How to Be Single
") is the brightest light this series has to offer, and she rises above the cornball material even as it sinks further into absurdity. Her best scene, hands down, is a nearly word-for-word tribute to one of mom Melanie Griffith's most popular films, and it's so cleverly and naturally woven into the story it should prove a delight for anyone who notices. Alas, it's soon back to the shaggy love story at hand. Ana deserves someone better than Christian, but she is too often blinded by her sexual attraction to him even as they don't seem to share any similar interests. Perhaps in part because Christian is so unlikable, even irritating, Johnson's chemistry with Jamie Dorman (2006's "Marie Antoinette
") is tepid, missing all of the passion and heat one expects from such a sexually charged narrative. Dornan still strikes as slightly miscast and never believably conveys any real pleasure or abandon from his bedroom (and Red Room) play with the woman he supposedly adores. In a particularly dumb turn, Christian keeps a lipstick outline across his chest to remind Ana of the part of his body out of bounds for touching. When she finally grows tired of this ridiculous display and asks if she can wash it off for him, he reluctantly complies. "Don't stray from the lines," he replies.
The top-notch supporting cast is underused. Marcia Gay Harden (2014's "Magic in the Moonlight
") brings a welcome kindness to Christian's adopted mother Grace, but in a late scene where she discovers a terrible secret about her longtime best friend and her son, all is solved with a slap across the face. Hardenand the character of Gracedeserve better. Kim Basinger (2016's "The Nice Guys
") is eye-catching as the mysterious Elena, but who she is as a person, and her long-private relationship with Christian, is left barely explored. Bella Heathcote (2016's "The Neon Demon
") pops up for a handful of scenes as the ailing, potentially dangerous Leila, committing to a thankless part that incorrectly treats her as a villain rather than a victim of Christian's abusive mind games. And, as Anastasia's disrespectful (and worse) boss Jack Hyde, Eric Johnson (2001's "Texas Rangers
") sinks his teeth into a despicable, would-be suave creep, emanating more dark magnetism than Dornan's Christian ever does.
"Fifty Shades Darker" is little more than a sudsy melodrama dressed up in soft-core erotica and big-budget production values. That it continuously and prematurely pans to ceilings or dissolves to the next scene only makes its sex scenes even more artificial and unsatisfying. The plot has been expanded from its predecessor, adding suspense-lite thriller elements to the proceedings, but the overall story being told has not made a case for why it needs to be a trilogy. To be sure, the picture is sharply lensed by cinematographer John Schwartzman (2015's "Jurassic World
") and the highly listenable soundtrack is well-chosen to accompany the multitude of montages padding the running time. Anastasia Steele is a sympathetic and compelling protagonist stuck in the wrong movieand with the wrong guy. When the honeymoon period is over, will she and Christian have anything to talk about? Can a relationship be sustained when one party still acts as if he has ownership over the other in every aspect of her life? Are these two truly going to be happy together forever? The jury is out on where everything is leading (I have not read the books and do not know what final installment "Fifty Shades Freed" will hold), but realistically these two would be wise to heed Elena's advice and walk away from each other now rather than later.