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By Chaz Lipp

The Lowdown: Darker is actually LIGHTER than its predecessor, benefiting from an awareness that it’s nothing more than a cheesy guilty pleasure.

Fifty Shades Darker, the second film based on E.L. James’ phenomenally popular series of novels, is critic proof. Only 8% “Fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes (as of this writing)? No problem. It’ll rake in money hand over fist and, quite frankly, it deserves its fortunes. For one thing, Darker is quite a bit better than 2015’s Fifty Shades of Grey. That might seem like damning with faint praise, but Grey itself was actually fairly enjoyable for what it was. This series isn’t aspiring to be anything more than a guilty pleasure. Darker benefits from a lighter touch (new director: James Foley, who helmed the classic Glengarry Glen Ross, new writer: previously TV-only scribe Niall Leonard) and another irresistible performance by Dakota Johnson.

Fifty shades darker jamie dornanThat’s not to suggest it’s all smooth sailing. Shot back-to-back with the trilogy’s forthcoming conclusion, Fifty Shades Freed (due in exactly one year; a teaser trailer pops up midway through Darker‘s credits), this is a film without an ending. Anastasia Steele (Johnson) has begun working at a publishing company as an assistant to fiction editor Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson). Ana has moved on from her torrid relationship with Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), or at least she initially believes so. Christian hasn’t let go. After reuniting at an photo exhibition, Christian and Ana renegotiate their relationship terms. Ana doesn’t want secrets. And she doesn’t want to be told what to do.

So, about that non-ending… Ana’s boss Jack has designs on her. Christian, of course, can’t stand by idly as another man moves in on his property (as Ana tells him, Christian’s concept of their relationship is inextricably based on “ownership”). But aside from the over-the-top sequence in which Jack forcefully puts the moves on Ana, Jack doesn’t really factor in as a rival. The “Jack subplot” is a big teaser/set-up for Freed. Thus, we have an ending much like other middle entries in trilogies (think Back to the Future II, The Matrix Reloaded, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers) wherein the credits roll seemingly in mid-scene before any plot threads reach a conclusion.

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What plot there is in Darker centers on Ana’s attempts to normalize her relationship with Christian, all while secretly still desiring to submit to his kinkier tendencies. Truth be told, even the film’s steamiest scenes are relatively chaste by today’s standards. It’s as if Dakota Johnson insisted on showing less skin now that she’s an established actress (and those hoping to see lots of Jamie Dornan, take note—Christian Grey apparently prefers having sex with his pants on most of the time).

fifty shades darker partyThankfully the script is full of howlers and head-scratching moments. Why Ana continues to even pursue the relationship with Christian (and vice versa) is still the biggest mystery of all. Sure, she likes what he does in the bedroom (and the shower, and the elevator, etc), but she has little interest in complying with his submissive demands. Bella Heathcote is on hand as an obsessive, homicidal former Grey submissive. Kim Basinger turns up as Christian’s business partner Elena, with whom he had a rather tortured affair (she’ll be back in Freed for more catty moments with Marcia Gay Harden, returning here as Christian’s adoptive mom Grace).

Fifty Shades Darker isn’t especially dark at all, but as a throwback to good, old-fashioned T&A flicks it works as cheesy entertaining. And Dakota Johnson manages to infuse her performance with a sly awareness of the flat-out silliness of this stuff.

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Fifty Shades Darker images: Universal Pictures

Chaz Lipp

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