At 8 p.m. on Sunday night, I took my seat at “50 Shades Of Grey” in the back row, like a guy in a trenchcoat at a Times Square spank-room circa 1977. To further accentuate that feeling, the Alamo Drafthouse — the only place I’ll see movies in Austin — had a custom pre-show made up mostly of black-and-white bondage films from the 60s. This included the forgotten classic “Sissy Boy Slap Party,” and also a great X-Ray Spex video and a “Bad Lip Reading” from the last “Twilight” movie. I could only survive this experience through irony. I feared the 50 Shades phenomenon.
To my left were three well-heeled Texas ladies in their 60s, wearing jangly bracelets and drinking copious amounts of wine. They had read the books and were oh so very curious about which of the dark and mysterious Mr. Grey’s sexual proclivities would be depicted on the screen. As they talked about this, they giggled nervously. They also talked about “Mad Men” and Breaking “Bad.” I liked these ladies.
To my right sat a couple, younger than me, probably in their early 30s. I was next to the guy. He grabbed the armrest.
“Do you mind if I put this down?” he said.
“Dude, please,” I said. “Do it.”
We were straight men at a ladies’ film. We would never touch. Our bond was sealed.
The movie appeared. It was about a shy virginal college senior named Ana who falls under the romantic thrall of Christian Grey, a 27-year-old billionaire with severe emotional problems and a predilection toward dominant sex. Their relationship evolves from soft-core premium cable TV encounters into the old slap-and-tickle. There’s lots of witless bantering and long scenes of the heroine crying in her bed because her love won’t “let her in” to see his true feelings.
I just laughed and laughed the whole time. It was so ridiculous. They go on a helicopter ride and a glider ride, about half an hour apart, and always seem to be zipping around in an Audi two-seater, but don’t seem to enjoy each other’s company. Ana moves from Portland to Seattle and has a nice apartment even though she doesn’t have a job. Christian plays the piano moodily and has important, contentless business meetings, bringing to mind the “Vincent Adultman” character from “Bojack Horseman,” who is always talking about his work at the “Business Factory.”
But then it all turns dark, because Christian is weird. Ana lies in bed pouting. He glowers over her like a dumb clone of Sting, putting his head in his hands and saying things like, “My mother was a crack addict.”
Despite half a dozen equivalent howlers, the script, overall, is smarter than its source material. Also, the music is excellent, the direction is quite confident, and Dakota Johnson, who plays Ana, has quite a bit of screen presence. She and the director seem to understand that this movie is, almost, a comedy. Unfortunately, Jamie Dornan, who plays Christian Grey, lacks their sense of nuance. He gives one of the worst film performances of all time — wooden, indifferent, and lame. Johnson actually looks like she’s enjoying herself in the sex scenes, which is important for a sex movie. Dornan, using all of his 1.7 facial expressions, looks like he’s trying to squeeze out a poop. For a movie about the “female gaze,” there is a lot of naked-lady stuff and a lot less naked-man stuff. It would have been nice if they’d cast a guy who looked like he was capable of breaking a sweat in the sack.
Still, he appeared to be weaving some sort of spell over the ladies next to me, who went dead silent when Christian started tying Ana up. They stared at the screen over the rims of their wineglasses. Then came the semi-climactic (but climax-free) moment where Ana, desperate to understand her man, begs him to show her how far he’s willing to go in his pleasure dungeon. He does his worst to her. It involves six whacks, to her naked bum, with a belt.
Hell, I thought, when the scene appeared. I’ve done that. And let me tell you, I’m no sexual astronaut. This is what women want? To be emotionally manipulated by a filthy rich S&M android with mommy issues? The male lead from “Outlander” is an actual romance hero who protects his woman from genuine threats and actually seems engaged by her as a human, enjoying something about her other than the fact that she sometimes bites her lip. Also, he screws like a stallion when the situation demands. I can see why women like him. By comparison, Christian Grey is just a needy stalker. I wouldn’t mind his seemingly bottomless bank account or a couple of his cars. But otherwise? Forget that dude.
During a key bondage moment, the guy next to me let out a loud fart. He looked embarrassed, but his partner was rolling with laughter. He shrugged it off and yawned deeply, as he’d been doing the entire movie.
Then “50 Shades Of Grey” ended, just as the story was getting started.
“Is that it?” I said.
“God, I hope so,” he said.
“I can’t wait for the sequel!” his date said.
“Oh no,” he said.
“Hah!” she said. “I’m kidding.”
He looked very relieved. We might not make the pages of a romance novel, but it’s nice to know some women think it’s OK to hang out with a guy who farts at the movies. Not everyone wants the billionaire with his ridiculous Electra complex. Stand down, gentlemen. The threat level has been reduced. When it comes to Christian Grey, the emperor has no clothes.
Neal Pollack’s next novel “Repeat” will be published in March.