Universal Pictures / Focus Features
At least this time around, the audience was well-lubricated. My first screening of Fifty Shades of Grey ended in a solid D+ rating for the highly anticipated big screen version of E.L. James’ best-selling book of the same name, and while I didn’t enjoy the film, I went into my press screening knowing full well that I had another viewing scheduled for the next week. That was hard to swallow. My book club – which has not read James’ book and doesn’t have any immediate plans to do so, and is mostly inclined to read books that aren’t nearly as salacious as the Fifty Shades series, though one time we did read a fictionalized account of the Amanda Knox story – had long planned to check the film out, as a goof, a field trip, a laugh. Fine, as a bonding (bondage?) experience.
In short, we were curious. (Curious enough that, the three of us who expected to see the film before our book club gathering, simply in service to our jobs, agreed to put another one on the books.) It was enlightening, surprisingly so.
I didn’t like Fifty Shades the first time I saw it, and I didn’t like it the second time I saw it, but knowing what was to come – Jamie Dornan’s inability to not look like a serial killer, its abusive undertones, that abrupt ending, all the lingering shots of Dakota Johnson’s body, its weird sense of geography, the misuse of its stacked supporting cast, and its laughable first act – somehow made it instantly more palatable. The crowd helped, too, as our 8PM screening on a Wednesday night in Manhattan was positively packed with large groups of (clearly buzzed) gal pals and the random couple or two. (In fact, a couple sat right next to me, and though they seemed to mostly enjoy it, the man would titter, “that’s not in the contract!” any time something even remotely weird happened.) Everyone was mostly in a jocular mood, and the row behind us relished making mostly well-timed jokes and observations about the film.
Normally, this kind of environment for a new feature – not, say, a screening of The Room or The Rocky Horror Picture Show – makes me batty, but this time around, I enjoyed it. The girl who yelled, “show more dick!” within the first half an hour won my heart, and the groaning pair of best pals who routinely muttered “whhhhhyyyy!?” every time Christian Grey (Dornan) proposed that innocent, silly, stupid Ana Steele (Johnson) do something she didn’t want to do should probably have reviewed the film last week, if only for my edification. It was really sort of fun. It’s mostly what I had hoped my first screening would be like.
Knowing what was to come also dulled my senses a bit – I’d worked out so much outrage about the film’s material during last week that I didn’t have much left – and allowed me to enjoy the actual pleasures of the film, of which there are a precious few.
When I first saw Whiplash during its Sundance 2014 debut (spoilers ahead if you haven’t yet seen Whiplash, and gosh, go see Whiplash right now), my initial viewing was marred by a number of third act reveals that I initially took at face value – mainly, that mostly brief period when it seemed as if Miles Teller’s Andrew and J.K. Simmons’ Fletcher were actually going to make up, sending the otherwise original film straight into cliché town. Of course, that’s not what happened, it was all just clever misdirection, the kind that allowed the real meat of the third act to seriously pop and sting, but the moments that I believed that all the brutal, hard-hitting stuff from the film’s previous acts had been undone still stuck with me, and I wasn’t able to fully embrace Whiplash until a second viewing (and I very much embraced it on a first viewing, so that second one was nearly revelatory).
Something similar happened with Fifty Shades, particularly as it applies to Johnson’s performance, which was already the unqualified highlight of my first go-round with the film. Johnson’s work here takes some time – man, that first act is unkind to both her and Dornan, requiring him to be dead-eyed creepy and her to be an idiot who is literally unable to open her own car door without assistance – but by the time the film has arrived at its second act, she’s so fresh and funny and snappy that it (almost) makes the rest of the outing worth it.
Having already been exposed to the film’s shocks – you know there’s sex in this, right? – I could instead concentrate my energy on watching Johnson just acting everybody else out the goddamn door. This is the kind of performance that really is star-making, and that it exists next to Dornan’s, which is, quite plainly, just not, makes it even more startling. Johnson is very funny and super charming, and Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t a film that aims for either of those things.
It’s enough to get me excited for the film’s inevitable sequels, though I do hope the “whhhhyyyy!?!” girls are present again, if only because they still echo most of what’s in my head.