The year’s first true cinematic travesty has arrived with “Fifty Shades Darker,” based on the second novel in E.L. James’ trilogy of sadomasochistic romances. An abusive-relationship fantasy about a wide-eyed young innocent and the handsome billionaire who yearns to smack her, this sequel manages the neat trick of being more explicit yet less erotic and far goofier than 2015’s “Fifty Shades of Grey.” From its dominant top to its submissive bottom, it’s utterly ridiculous.
It might have been a hoot if its sexual politics and baseline morality weren’t so objectionable. In this episode, mousy little Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson, still charming but ill-used) and multibusiness magnate Christian Grey (a dull Jamie Dornan) reunite on condition that he keep his bedroom kinks on lockdown. As for his controlling tendencies and stalker-style jealousy, Anastasia can’t get enough of them.
Christian’s first act after meeting Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), Anastasia’s handsome boss at a Seattle publishing firm, is to buy the company. What’s more, when Jack clumsily offers to help Anastasia sleep her way to the top, he’s fired. Poor Jack — his real crime was honesty. And guess who’s promoted to his job the next morning? Bingo.
So it goes through this reprehensible film, which is brightened only when, through sheer ineptitude, it falls down a figurative flight of stairs or two. Say this for screenwriter Niall Leonard: He brings his wife’s ear-stabbing prose faithfully to the screen. “I don’t know whether to worship at your feet,” Christian says breathily, “or spank you.” In one jaw-dropping scene, Christian’s helicopter crashes in the mountains, sending Anastasia into a panic — until he heroically walks through the door with his T-shirt slightly ripped. Thank God! She almost had to work for a living.
Awkwardly directed by James Foley, who frequently shoves his leads into a corner of the screen as if he’s more interested in the fireplace (and you can’t blame him), “Fifty Shades Darker” would be a camp classic if its heroine weren’t so appallingly dishonest about what really turns her on: Wealth. Somehow, this shy young thing becomes more agreeable to instruments of torture — ankle cuffs, nipple clamps — the closer she gets to marrying the billionaire who wields them.
“Fifty Shades” ends with a standoff between Anastasia and Christian’s former mistress-of-the-whip, Elena (Kim Basinger), who still carries a torch for the guy. This makes sense, because for a woman like Anastasia, there’s only one real enemy, of course: another woman.