Even fans of Fifty Shades of Grey admit the book is a literary atrocity. Novelist E.L. James's erotic reveries read like the rantings of a drunk yokel -- less "His firm hands cupped my breasts" and more "Holy crap! He's touching my boobs!" The story is simple: 21-year-old virgin Anastasia Steele is offered an opening to be cold-hearted tycoon Christian Grey's sex slave. Before they sign a contract — an actual legal document with addendum for buttplugs -- they test the merchandise and each other's emotional and physical limits.
The smartest decision director Sam Taylor-Johnson made when adapting the novel for the screen was to throw out half of it. The film strips Fifty Shades of Grey to its essentials: a confident man, an awkward girl, and a red room rimmed with leather handcuffs. From there, Taylor-Johnson rebuilds. She constructs an erotic dramedy that takes its romance seriously even as it admits that Christian Grey's very existence is absurd.
As Grey, Jamie Dornan seems so uncomfortable that it's unclear if he's in on the joke. But Dakota Johnson breathes life into Anastasia Steele in tiny motions: the way she leans in to Grey's neck or dances like a fool to Frank Sinatra. Her Anastasia lives in the real world -- a place where Christian Greys are unicorns.
It's too bad Taylor-Johnson can't give the suspicious side-eye to the story's puritanical bent. James's series savors kink and stigmatizes it, implying Grey's only into BDSM because an older woman stole his virginity at fifteen and his mother was a crack whore. With that, both book and film punish fans. Yes, this naughty stuff is hot -- but if you like it too much, you're sick.