“Less plot, more ladders.”
That’s a philosophy espoused by a college friend of mine with a fondness for Jackie Chan movies. Chan is known for incredibly inventive action sequences in which he fights using whatever is handy — including, in First Strike, a ladder. But what my friend does not want from Jackie Chan movies is a lot of time unwinding a boring, byzantine plot. Less plot, he would demand. More ladders.
And this, for a couple of reasons, is what I found myself thinking about at a screening of Fifty Shades Freed. Directed by James Foley from the E.L. James books, it’s the third and final (?) installment in the story of creepy weird billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) and Anastasia Steele (really!) (Dakota Johnson), the woman he met when she was a nervous virgin and taught to enjoy light spanking and private jets. The wealth he has accumulated from his business, which appears to be professional suit-wearing, allows them to travel, hire a large and obsequious staff, and maintain a big sex room. (It’s only meant to be a sex room, so when I watched Ana lie down on the couch in the sex room just for a nap, I almost screamed, “Don’t lie down on that!”)
Fifty Shades Freed — and before it, middle installment Fifty Shades Darker — have increasingly relied on more plot and fewer ladders. Here, by “plot” I mean “plot,” and by “ladders” I mean “allegedly adventurous sex that rarely constitutes anything you wouldn’t find at an all-inclusive resort’s Spice Up Your Life workshop for recent divorcees.” The first film, Fifty Shades Of Grey, is all about the development of a (not realistic!) dominant/submissive sexual relationship, and while it’s awful, it’s not without its legitimately interesting moments. How often, after all, do you see a long sequence that’s intended to be sexy in which consent is carefully negotiated, act by act? At least there are lots of ladders in that one.
But as the trilogy progresses, and as Christian and Ana settle into married life, you can’t just keep showing them having fights with the same ladders, if you see my point. Not only that, but these are R-rated movies, and to keep your R-rating, there are limitations on the number of ladders, the height of the ladders, and whether you can show them vertically or only horizontally. Metaphorically speaking. Therefore, there’s only so much you can do with the ladders. That leaves you … with plot.
The plot of Fifty Shades Freed, such as it is — and never has “such as it is” been meant with such a deliberate arch of the eyebrow — relies upon both Christian’s terrible childhood and Ana’s promotion to fiction editor of an independent book publisher that Christian purchased while she was employed there as a jerk’s personal assistant. The jerk — named Jack (Eric Johnson) — then became a menace. Surprisingly enough, Jack’s motive for hating Christian and Ana is not that Ana became a fiction editor at a publisher and her major contributions, as seen in this film, are finding an author named “Boyce Fox” (could’ve sworn my accountant worked at Boyce Fox) and increasing a font size by two points.
[Side note: If this is the Fifty Shades theory of what fiction editors are for, much is explained.]
In this third film, Jack is menacing all over the place, so Christian is his usual “overprotective” self, which for him means ordering Ana around, limiting her movements, surveilling her, yelling at her, and — in perhaps the moment that will provoke the most anger from actual practitioners of the sexual habits Christian and Ana enjoy — using his power in their sexual relationship to punish her for perceived slights elsewhere in their personal life. (Pretty sure that’s a no-no.) But Christian remains the romantic hero at all times. So the film feels a little bit like Sleeping With The Enemy if Julia Roberts eventually decided that her controlling husband was a pretty good guy who just had a hard life and wanted what was best for her.
It’s easy to write off Fifty Shades Freed with the same sneer the books have been subjected to since they appeared, which is to treat it as an inherently hilarious effort to appeal to the prurient interests of square, easily scandalized middle-aged women. (Appealing to the prurient interests of square, easily scandalized middle-aged men is called “premium cable.” Ha ha! Just kidding, it’s also a lot of basic cable.) There’s nothing wrong with erotic literature — or film — for women. There’s nothing wrong or surprising about fantasy material for moms or aunts or whatever you want to call it. It just would be nice if it were… better.
The thing a lot of romance readers know is that this model, in which a virgin meets a worldly, wealthy man who educates her in the ways of her own body, in which she is shocked to find that she enjoys sex, including non-procreative sex, is not new. Fifty Shades is just every story of a roguish duke and a pink-cheeked innocent, translated into a world of hedge-fund managers. It has all the weird traps of that trope, in which sex is treated as the natural territory of men, to which women need introduction. (There’s much more about this in a book called Beyond Heaving Bosoms that I commend to you.) And those novels, just like novels in genres like science fiction and mystery, share common elements but vary in quality, depending on how well they’re written. Films are the same way.
What’s wrong with this movie, and the other movies, and these books, is not that they’re shameful or that there’s something wrong with or something silly about explicit content. It’s just that they’re not good. They’re not inventively sexy — in fact, the desultory handcuffery early in Fifty Shades Freed feels kind of half-hearted, like the umpteenth time you heard an Olsen twin say “You got it, dude!” on Full House. They tell dumb, half-baked stories about boring people who are lethargically acted. They don’t know how to make Christian seem like a human being, so they settle for having him sing and play “Maybe I’m Amazed” on the piano. (The singing is new; if you’ve seen the other movies, you know he likes to have sex and then play the piano with no shirt on.)
Don’t skip these movies because of what they are. Skip them because they’re bad at being what they are, and when you don’t have plot or ladders? You’re no match for Jackie Chan.