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Spanks, but no spanks – ‘Fifty Shades Darker’

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Sequel strives for sexy, achieves unintentional laughs instead

So this “Fifty Shades of Grey” thing is still happening.

It’s not really surprising when you consider that the not-very-good first film made a whole lot of money at the box office catering to the crowd that likes to be titillated by the idea of erotica without really understanding what makes something erotic.

And so you get “Fifty Shades Darker,” an even-less-good sequel that apparently follows the second book in the wildly popular E. L. James trilogy.

Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson, “How to be Single”) has broken things off with billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan, “Anthropoid”) and tried to move on with her life, getting a job as an editorial assistant at a small independent publisher.

However, Christian simply can’t live without her and so has devoted himself to winning her back by promising to change his sub-dom sexual ways. And so he does – in record time, I might add – bringing the two of them back together and progressing toward something more resembling a regular relationship.

For a given value of “regular,” of course. The twosome tries to advance their relationship, but find themselves struggling with plenty of obstacles – some in the present day and many others from the past.

Along the way, Anastasia has acquired a stalker (Bella Heathcote, TV’s “The Man in the High Castle”) who is somehow connected to Christian’s past. There’s also some conflict with Elena (Kim Basinger, “The Nice Guys”), the older woman who contributed so heavily to Christian’s sexual awakening. Christian is dealing with the traumas of his past, but refuses to allow Anastasia to see his whole self.

Oh, and there’s just a TON of sex. Granted, not one second of it is actually sexy, but there’s a whole lot of the mass-market eroticism that marked the first film. Between the barely-concealed disdain between the two leads and the story’s willingness to conflate sub-dom sexuality and straight-up abuse, the filmmakers’ desperate attempts at sensuality are either off-putting, unintentionally hilarious or both.

“Fifty Shades Darker” struggles for a number of reasons. For one, there’s not much that actually happens – what plot there is seems to exists solely as a loose framework upon which the ridiculous sex scenes might be hung. For another, the chemistry – something one would think important in a sex-driven film – is nonexistent; even when they’re aping intimacy, Johnson and Dornan don’t even seem like they’re in the same room. The cinematography is sloppy and the dialogue is stilted; in short, this is a bad movie across the board.

Johnson and Dornan give off the vibe of two people who discovered fairly early on in the process that they don’t particularly like one another very much; there’s a resignation to their every interaction, one that oozes regret for signing on to the project in the first place. She’s better than he is, although in fairness, she’s the only one who’s really allowed to emote. There’s something almost impressive about the ability of director James Foley to generate this sort of anti-sexiness from two good-looking, reasonably talented actors.

The supporting cast is fine, I suppose, although it’s tough to care about them when literally nobody else involved in the film does. Every single character aside from Anastasia and Christian is a rough sketch - at best, they’re rendered with one or two defining characteristics; at worst, they’re simply attractive placeholders. Even Marcia Gay Harden, a consummate pro with both an Oscar and a Tony to her name, occasionally has a barely-controlled “Can you believe this s—t?” look about her.

As far as I can see, there’s very little redeeming value to this movie. However, I will freely admit that this is just one man’s opinion. The reality is that I was very much in the minority regarding my feelings as the audience filed out of the theater. Numerous voices could be heard breathlessly declaiming their excitement and enjoyment of the film.

“Good” and “popular” aren’t always the same thing. In fact, it’s increasingly rare that there’s much overlap at all in that particular Venn diagram. After all, as “Fifty Shades Darker” illustrated throughout its runtime, there’s no accounting for taste.

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