I tried to give the Fifty Shades of Grey movies the benefit of the doubt. Watching the first film, I told myself it was just a wish-fulfillment fantasy, and fantasies are OK. I tried to be grateful that E.L. James' best sellers about a bondage-loving billionaire and his demure bride-to-be make for racier, more eventful romances than Nicholas Sparks' output ever could.
But enough with benefit-of-the-doubt giving. It took only a few minutes of Fifty Shades Freed — directed, like the second installment, by the once-reputable James Foley (Glengarry Glen Ross) — to make me long for freedom from this particular cinematic dungeon.
Those first few minutes are all about the wedding and honeymoon of Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) and Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), and they feel like a video ad for a swanky nuptial package that won't stop playing. Everything is catalog-bland and generically luxurious, until Ana attempts to go topless on the French Riviera and Christian blows his top, reminding us that he is a possessive, paranoid, controlling asshole.
Or an adorable controlling asshole, as your preference may be. The pattern continues as our lovebirds return to Seattle. Having purchased the publishing company where Ana works, Christian proceeds to monitor every aspect of her life, bombarding her with worried texts when she dares deviate from her schedule to have drinks with a friend.
Ah, but he's totally justified in this behavior! Because Ana's lecherous former boss, Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), has taken to stalking the couple. His reasons for doing so are absurdly contrived; suffice it to say that, in this cinematic universe, everyone who isn't a fervent cheerleader for the Ana-Christian relationship is a jealous wretch hell-bent on sabotaging it. No supporting character has much interior life or interest in anything besides the central couple.
And that couple is ... not so interesting. Johnson brings a certain liveliness and humor to Ana's meekness; even her defiance is self-effacing, but defiant nonetheless. She'd excel at rom-com-style sparring, but no sparks fly here, because Dornan's performance is a blank. He's not hatefully arrogant or charismatically cocky; he's just there, looking good, much like Christian's cars and clothes and real estate.
The most frustrating thing about the film is that, when it's not serving up hard-core lifestyle porn or very soft-core porn porn, it occasionally broaches real questions about how to make a relationship work — then drops them.
At one point, Christian does something nasty during a sexual encounter to "punish" Ana for her growing independence, and she calls him on it. Does this reality check lead to soul searching, hard discussions, character growth? Nope: Christian "apologizes" by sending Ana on a lavish trip to Aspen, Colo., with her friends. This appears to be his version of compromise: If he can't be the only person in his beloved's life, he can at least mastermind and finance every aspect of it.
Perhaps Fifty Shades Freed is the ideal romance for an age of naked greed and acquisition. Mainly, though, it's alternately dull and disorienting. Swoony, teasing, withholding sex scenes segue directly into car chases and abductions that evoke a hastily written daytime soap.
Fine films have been and can be made about BDSM relationship dynamics, in and out of the bedroom — for an arty, self-aware take, try The Duke of Burgundy (2014). Fine films have fleshed out fantasy fodder, too. But Fifty Shades Freed has the paper-thinness of a coffee-break daydream. Unless you're a die-hard fan, steer clear of Mr. Grey's playroom.