Pop quiz: You're an English literature major about to graduate from college. You have never heard the words "butt" and "plug" used in conjunction with one another. How hard would it be for you to figure out how said butt-plug, ahem, works?
Because for Anastasia Steele (call her Ana), the independent-minded yet virginal protagonist in the big screen translation of E.L. James' self-published-novel-turned-runaway-best-seller Fifty Shades of Grey, the name of this seemingly self-explanatory sex toy might as well be the riddle of the Sphinx. Yup, Ana's the kind of girl who looks up in awe at a generic Seattle skyscraper and whispers, "Wow."
Newcomer Dakota Johnson (daughter of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith) plays the bookish-but-beautiful coed, who interviews 27-year-old billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) for her college newspaper and ends up falling head over ... well, we'll get to that.
First, can we talk about director Sam Taylor-Johnson's dogmatically literal production design, which seems to think that 50 Shades refers to Benjamin Moore paint swatches? Suits, ties, office suites, marble floors and even Christian's leggy assistants – who look like they stepped out of a Robert Palmer music video (or, worse, a Helmut Newton photo shoot) – are all clad in monochromatic hues. For a heaving bodice-ripper about sexual kink, the art direction is awfully sterile, recalling the works of David Cronenberg. Sleek it is. Sexy it is not.
Even Anastasia's naked body is presented as more of a study in aesthetic shape and form than the physical embodiment of sexual passion and longing. Taylor-Johnson (Nowhere Boy) shoots her two leads with all the eroticism of a well-designed floor lamp, which is fitting, since Kelly Marcel's script gives the characters nearly as much depth.
As for the story itself, hunky, humorless Christian becomes ravenously attracted to our spirited young heroine and starts wooing her with all the creepy, controlling charm of American Psycho's Patrick Bateman. He shows up at her workplace (a hardware store) to buy duct tape and plastic ties, he chastises her for drinking, he sells her VW without her consent and replaces it with something sportier, and he whisks her off to Seattle in his helicopter –all before firmly warning that there won't be any romance in their relationship.
See, Christian doesn't do "the girlfriend thing" ... except for that one time he calls her his girlfriend. And he's not going to sleep in the same bed with her ... except for that one time that he does. And he's not going to make love to her ... well, except for that one time that he does. But if Ana really wants a relationship with him, hearts and flowers will have to be replaced by whips and ropes and, occasionally, some post-coital piano playing.
The crux of the drama – nearly half the Fifty Shades running time – revolves around whether Ana will sign the multi-page contract that will officially make her Christian's "submissive." His chiding inflames her to respond with coquettish maybes, coy "I'm not sures" and troubled "I haven't decided yets."
Despite that ambivalence, Ana decides to sample Christian's distinctive mix of self-pitying BDSM and OCD by becoming intimate with his secret "playroom," a bondage-themed rec room as imagined by Louis Vuitton. It, of course, leads her to experience never-before-attained levels of erotic satisfaction.
The question Fifty Shades of Grey ultimately inspires is: Is this really what millions of American women find sexy? A schlocky, 1 percent consumer wet dream punctuated by decorous kink? In Fifty Shades author E.L. James' world, passion is expressed through wealth and gifts rather than communication and consent. Putting aside her insultingly ignorant view of BDSM culture, there's a weird bit of sociology going on here, one where women crave to be dominated by damaged, controlling men – and even invite their desire to abuse them.
Perhaps I am missing some gender-coded nuance that makes James' story less vapid and creepy than it seems. But I suspect the real reason for Fifty Shades of Grey's popularity is a combination of media hype and a near absence of quality alternatives. Female sexuality has never fared particularly well in the male-dominated book industry. After all, is any literary genre ridiculed with the kind of scorn that's reserved for romance novels?
If there's a bright spot to be found in this dull and dreary film, it's in Johnson's performance. Though she doesn't share an ounce of chemistry with her co-star, and the script can't decide whether Ana's an independent-minded woman or a fickle doormat, the young actress does a credible job of giving her character both dignity and vulnerability. If only the film itself reflected half her talent.