Fifty Shades Freed
Bruce Steele: So, I know the Fifty Shades series is critic-proof, so we’re spinning our wheels to even talk about Fifty Shades Freed. But I genuinely wonder whether even so-called fans take it seriously. The opening night audience — 95 percent women, and a few men glued to their smartphones or clutching their dates — seemed to take the whole thing as a big joke. Is that how you read their reactions?
Edwin Arnaudin: Maybe. They appeared to revel in the absurdity of Anastasia (Dakota Johnson), Christian (Jamie Dornan) and their soap-opera life, laughing at their insecure chatter and the occasional intentionally funny line. But this series has always been about sex and there’s plenty of it here, possibly more than in the previous two entries — though the couple’s penchant for getting it on is as goofy as anything else in the film.
Bruce: The ad slogan for this installment is “Don’t miss the climax.” One of Ana’s co-workers ogles her bodyguard and says, “I might have an opening.” And yes, there are lots of really brief, barely suggestive sex scenes — breasts and butts only — that I can’t imagine anyone finds truly sexy. So it has to be a shared in-joke that either you get or you don’t. Kind of like cappuccino flavored potato chips or those Wisconsin cheeseheads.
Edwin: The appeal is tough to unravel. Women make up the vast majority of the audience, yet once again it’s Johnson providing the bulk of the film’s nudity. The two times Dornan’s carefully framed lower abdomen makes an appearance elicited cheers from our crowd, and as with Gray and Darker, we get more glimpses of his upper buttocks, half shielded by boxers or pants — apparently his preferred love-making attire. But, no, there’s nothing sexy here. Are these movies just an excuse for women to have a night out and enjoy the big-screen equivalent of trashy television?
Bruce: That seems accurate. Your earlier use of the phrase “soap opera” is especially apt for Fifty Shades Freed, and I don’t mean just in terms of production quality. The story is episodic and uneven, with barely motivated tiffs between Ana and Christian and an inept stalker who shows up now and again. The violence is mild and clumsy, the plot twists implausible. The only way you can buy in is because you want to hang out with the characters, even if it’s lame — like in a soap opera. Except this soap has butt cracks and drawers full of sex toys. It’s something supposedly risqué packaged as risk free. I mean, was there anything really at stake in this movie?
Edwin: Not really. Several times I caught myself asking if the film had a plot, and the best I could come up with in the moment was that it's about the newlyweds navigating marriage and protecting themselves from Ana’s vengeful former boss Jack (Eric Johnson). That’s a pretty flimsy set-up on which to hang the copious sex scenes, but compared with its predecessors’ failed attempts at character building and drama, I prefer this messy, action-based approach. And at barely over 90-minutes, that’s about half an hour less than we’ve had to spend with these dummies in rounds one and two.
Bruce: I don’t know that I want to call them “dummies.” They’re soap characters, intended for audiences to project their fantasies onto them. I just think the audience is going to have to work especially hard this time out, since the previous romantic uncertainties — Will Ana go along with light bondage? Will Christian commit? — have been settled. In the one longer sex scene, Ana starts whining about Christian mistreating her after about 30 seconds of foreplay. I’d think that kind of tease-us interrupt-us would be frustrating even for fans.
Edwin: For about two seconds, there’s another uncertainty: Will saucy architect Gia (Arielle Kebbel) wreck the relationships of Ana/Christian or that of his brother Elliot (Luke Grimes) and Ana’s best friend Kate (Eloise Mumford)?
Bruce: The swimwear-model architect was a pure soap ploy. It so validated the world that we’re in here, where everyone is gorgeous and desirable and a threat to our beloved Ana.
Edwin: However, I mostly disagree that fans will be frustrated. If they’ve showed up the other times, they probably won’t mind this victory lap that basically rehashes the sex scenes that attracted them in the first place. It’s essentially Fifty Shades' Greatest Hits and our crowd was invested enough in the characters to applaud and whoop when things went their way.
Bruce: That’s true. All the ladies seemed to have a good time, and they were smiling and chatting afterwards. But unlike Anastasia Steele — great name, by the way — I doubt Fifty Shades Freed will have long legs. But at least this silly franchise is finally walking away from us. I will give Fifty Shades Freed a D, rather than a failing grade, in deference to the audience, who evidently found it D-licious.
Edwin: There you go again, standing up for a relative. Even without the nepotism advantage, I’ll go with a matching D. Like the most recent Fast & Furious installment, there are a few measly bits of entertainment to elevate the last Fifty Shades chapter above its utterly boring series kin. I wish both sagas were finished, but I’ll take what I can get.
Grade: D. Rated R. Now playing at AMC Classic, Biltmore Grande and Carolina Cinemark
(Photo: Universal Pictures)