There are maybe 20 minutes of sex, tops, in Fifty Shades of Grey. That's counting the spanking scene, which ends not with a climax but with Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) smugly declaring, "Welcome to my world."
This isn't a measure I generally take of a movie, but then again, this isn't just any studio romance — this is the big-screen adaptation of E. L. James' monster best-seller, the first book in her Twilight fan-fiction-turned-erotic-novel trilogy about the eternal, BDSM-inflected love between billionaire Christian Grey and recent college grad Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), the ne plus ultra of wide-eyed ingenues. Sex — kinky sex — has been the central appeal of the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise. It's the reason various groups, from conservative Christian organizations to social media movements against domestic violence, have taken stances against the film, which opens in theaters on Feb. 13, just in time for Valentine's Day. It's the reason Dornan and Johnson have spent multiple interviews elaborating on how unsexy sex scenes are to shoot.
Sex is the main selling point of Fifty Shades of Grey, but the scenes in which Dornan and Johnson get down in Grey's marble-filled Seattle penthouse are, inevitably, the least provocative part of the movie, which is directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson (Nowhere Boy) from a screenplay by Kelly Marcel. How can they not be? Beneath the bold trappings, Fifty Shades of Grey is a tastefully R-rated adaptation of a book that's really an updated bodice-ripper about a virgin winning the heart of a rake. Its vision of BDSM is monogamous, mild, and reserved for the red leather-lined sanctity of Christian's playroom — Cosmo-style dominance and submission involving silk ties, blindfolds, and ice cubes.
Aside from the unexpected and totally welcome presence of pubic hair, there's nothing in the few Fifty Shades of Grey sex scenes that is nearly as daring as what you can regularly find on premium cable. Whether being deflowered or flogged, Anastasia unfailingly and effortlessly achieves orgasm, Johnson gamely tossing her head back and gasping in pleasure as soon as her co-star comes near. Christian lectures his lover on safe words and limits, but we never see them come up. Until the climactic (heh) scene, everything he tries goes over perfectly, even if his partner has no particular investment in his preferred modes of play.
It's in the other 100-plus minutes of Fifty Shades of Grey that the movie really gets interesting, putting its fantasy of emotional withholding up on screen in all its troubling, alluring, and strikingly female-focused glory. Let's be honest: There's nothing audacious about Dornan's picture-perfect appeal when he pulls off his shirt (which he does many times, in an impressive variety of ways) to reveal his sculpted torso with its scattering of backstory burn scars. No, it's how Christian acts when he's not taking Anastasia to bed that's so challenging: He tracks down her place of work just to see her again after they first meet; he traces her to and retrieves her from the club where she's gotten drunk postgraduation; he shows up inside her apartment with champagne when she ignores him; he follows her to Georgia when she travels to visit her mom (Jennifer Ehle), without telling her he's coming, because a few days apart is apparently too much.
Fifty Shades of Grey totally plays the kind of obsessive, jealous, boundary-free behavior that would have most women considering a restraining order for romance, and to the movie's credit, it somehow keeps idealization of the fixated suitor glossily daydreamlike. Christian, whose incredible business acumen involves wearing suits and using a laptop, buys lavish gifts for Anastasia and, when he's not boinking her, treats her with paternal care, buckling her seatbelt, kissing her forehead, and tucking her in bed with juice and painkillers when she's had too much to drink. He also tells her that he's not the right man for her, that he won't sleep in the same bed as her, and that he's not one for "hearts and flowers." He's the king of mixed messages, a combination of adoring supplicant, commanding lover, and mysterious, distant bad boy. And the movie defies you to deny there can be sexiness to its fantasies of compulsion, overwhelming authority, and possessiveness, even as their reality's anything but appealing.
It doesn't hurt that Taylor-Johnson and Marcel have made space for humor amidst James' more stilted prose — the movie's fully aware that its most overheated lines (like Christian's "I don't make love. I fuck... hard") are going to generate titters. Dornan and Johnson bring a twinkle to their roles as the lovers, and Dornan's warm gaze and Johnson's giggles make the scene where he holds her arms over her head in bed feel less like a Skinemax moment and more like one taking place between actual human beings experiencing actual desire. Yes, Anastasia is as hopeless a drip of a character as Christian is self-indulgently doleful, but the midsection of the movie allows her some realization of her own appeal as she keeps her would-be lover dangling and pushes back on the rules he tries to set for her.
After that, the movie suggests, at least for a little while, that the pair's shifting power dynamic outside of the playroom has little resemblance to their role-play within it. It's a shame when it all comes crashing down, pathologizing Christian's "singular" taste for cuffs and control, which gets linked to his troubled childhood and inner turmoil ("I'm 50 shades of fucked up!" he confesses, hilariously), and abruptly setting up the next film in the planned trilogy.
Fifty Shades of Grey can be ridiculous, but it's also better and more watchable than its source material would have you believe. And even if the sex isn't actually edgy, the movie's presence in multiplexes might well be. After all, indulgent masculine fantasies, raunchy and otherwise, flood theaters every week. Seeing such an unabashedly indulgent feminine one burn up the box office? That feels gratifyingly audacious.