There’s an umbrella stand in the Red Room. Why is there an umbrella stand in the Red Room? Surely it must be an aesthetic choice, but there are umbrellas in it, and they’re mismatched. It’s as though people have left them there, as if it were a restaurant. It is an undeniably chic umbrella stand, but the question remains: why? Is there a street-level entrance to the Red Room which necessitates this amenity? Is the rain in Seattle is so severe that it requires an umbrella always being within reach? Is there a leak in the Red Room? Is it simply so steamy in there that the condensation becomes a problem? Is umbrella play a thing? Why in the hell does the Red Room need a goddamn umbrella stand?
This is perhaps the least pressing question one may ask themselves after viewing Fifty Shades Freed, but it might be the most interesting. The big ones are mundane and depressing, some familiar after the first two outings — who thought these two attractive people had chemistry, and why is the sex so dull? — and some new. The umbrella question intrigues because there’s no ready answer; it’s a piece of incongruity onto which a person can latch. Otherwise, you’re just left wondering who thought that car chase was genuinely thrilling, who greenlit this dialogue, and who thought to simply ignore the realities of the world in favor of whatever’s most narratively convenient by the scene. The umbrella stand is absolutely the most interesting thing about Fifty Shades Freed, a piece of dramatic and ethical garbage.
For those just dropping in for the climax, the absurdly named Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) stumbled into a billionaire one day, and despite the endless red flags, she fell in love. The billionaire is the equally ludicrously named Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), who is emotionally damaged and what the film considers to be kinky. Two movies and endless confrontations about Ana’s independence later, they’re ready to tie the knot and traipse through a seemingly endless honeymoon montage. But all is not well in the fanciest apartment in Seattle, and threats both internal and external imperil their filthy rich marital bliss — mostly in the form of the clear gold medalist in the stupid fucking name Olympics, Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), a criminally insane former publishing executive who is a terrible human being and yet somehow an even worse character. Hijinks ensue, and the sex is terrible.
That umbrella stand isn’t the only element of the film onto which one can project meaning. That’s the whole point of Christian Grey and of Ana Steele; one is a handsome cipher with secrets, the other an everywoman arriving just in time to change him. They’re intentionally bland, for your pleasure. The film goes out of its way to make sure that no choice they make can be assigned too much meaning, so that those watching can imagine them to be anyone they want. That emptiness is awfully convenient; it makes it possible to dismiss all those red flags. They’re red flags almost certainly made of the finest silk and thread, spun from pure gold, because Christian Grey is filthy rich, a fact that’s definitely supposed to mean more to Ana and the audience than whether or not he wants to have kids, or how he feels about the independence of his partner, or any other trait of genuine importance.
Instead we get softcore porn, and absolutely none of the porniest stuff involves naked bodies. Director James Foley has time for endless lavish shots of elegant sink fixtures, modernist fireplaces, closets and kitchen islands and huge bathtubs, and one very lonely-looking rainfall shower to be used only when one feels the biggest, saddest feelings. An early montage offers a highlight reel of the Greys’ globe-trotting honeymoon, complete with jet-skis and rococo fuck palaces; a later montage includes footage from that montage, resulting in some hot montage-on-montage action, which might actually be the kinkiest thing that happens in this movie. In a chunk of the film’s bizarre thriller section, a car chase ensues, which manages to be simultaneously devoid of suspense, tonally inconsistent, and a pretty solid advertisement for that particular luxury brand of vehicle. That car is sexier than any of the actual sex, though the car, the sex, and the inevitable sex in the car are shot in the same sterile, dispassionate style.
It’s absurd, and not in a fun way. The previous chapter of the Fifty Shades trilogy had at least a few moments of enjoyable camp: the odd drink in the face, the occasional Ben Wa ball, a man who develops an inexplicable case of pink-eye after he’s revealed to be a villain, and so on. The pink-eye is still there, but almost all the fun has been stripped away. Give or take one excellent joke about the practical applications of handcuffs — delivered with expert awkwardness by Dakota Johnson, who remains the only moderately charming element of the trilogy — the film is as devoid of wit as it is of subtlety, and that combined absence, courtesy of screenwriter Niall Leonard, leads to some of its biggest unintentional laughs.
There aren’t nearly enough of those laughs to make this an enjoyable hate-watch, however. It’s hard to say which element is likeliest to first alienate a viewer. Will it be the wide-eyed manic stare Dornan adopts to signal Grey’s happiness? The complete refusal to acknowledge that behaviors like throwing a fit about a woman’s email address, having her private security staff report on her movements, or making decisions about her livelihood might be just a little bit unsettling? Perhaps it’s this: the invasive, ceaseless soundtrack of pop tunes makes the affair feel like it belongs on The CW — a comparison deeply unfair to The CW, which is currently putting out work that’s far edgier and more entertaining than this soulless nightmare. Or might it be the film’s intentional ignorance of the realities of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse and the rights women have to make decisions about their own bodies? Hell, maybe it’s just that Jennifer Ehle appears in this movie and has zero lines.
Take your pick. They’re all good reasons to be well and truly vexed by this piece of self-important, cynical garbage. Dakota Johnson deserves a better film. The target audience deserves a better film. Jennifer Ehle definitely deserves a better film. Some of the most die-hard Fifty Shades fans will undoubtedly find a way to enjoy this mess, but others will be left like poor Anastasia Steele, standing in an obscenely expensive shower of sadness while water cascades over her carefully framed nipples: lonely, confused, and not even a bit turned on.
If you take only one thing away from this review, let it be this: the single most interesting thing about Fifty Shades Freed is that umbrella stand. Give the stand its own fucking franchise. It would have to be better than this.