'Fifty Shades of Grey': What the Critics Are Saying

Sam Taylor-Johnson's record-breaking take on EL James' erotic best-seller stars Dakota Johnson as Anastasia Steele and Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey.

The buzzy big-screen adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey hits theaters Friday, with Dakota Johnson starring as virginal college student Anastasia Steele opposite Jamie Dornan's Christian Grey, the attractive businessman who's particularly dominant in bed.

Also starring Jennifer Ehle, Eloise Mumford, Victor Rasuk, Luke Grimes, Marcia Gay Harden and Rita Ora, Sam Taylor-Johnson's take on EL James' erotic best-seller is being protested by various organizations for its portrayal of domestic abuse, but has also become the fastest-selling R-rated movie in Fandango history.

See what top critics are saying about Fifty Shades of Grey:

The Hollywood Reporter's Sheri Linden says, "The first in a planned trilogy of movies will stoke the ardor of James’ fans, entice curious newbies, and in every way live up to the 'phenomenon' hype. Although the book’s soft-X explicitness has been toned down to a hard R, this is the first studio film in many years to gaze directly at the Medusa of sex — and unlike such male-leer predecessors as 9½ Weeks, it does so from a woman’s perspective. Aiming to please, the filmmakers submit without hesitation to the bold yet hokey source material, with leads Dornan and Johnson breathing a crucial third dimension into cutout characters." Taylor-Johnson "depicts fringe pursuits within a familiar, reassuring romance-novel dynamic," and screenwriter Kelly Marcel "is ultra-faithful to James’ writing, and retains some of its most risible lines." And "Dornan creates a remarkable range within Grey’s tightly wound intensity," and "Johnson is captivating."

Additionally, "It’s a slow build to the smutty bits, and one that’s disappointingly devoid of tension. Even so, the movie is, by definition, a stronger proposition than the book because it strips away the oodles of cringe-inducing descriptions and internal monologue that tip the text heavily toward self-parody. ... Their first use of his playroom is packaged in a montage-y way that feels nonthreatening and more than a little generic, complete with intrusive pop-track accompaniment. A few dom-sub contract details and a couple of online photos notwithstanding, the movie maintains an artful restraint even as it talks dirty; the sex scenes suggest more than those of the standard Hollywood drama without quite going there."

The New York Times' A. O. Scott explains it "is, like the book itself, a wildly confused treatment of a perennial confusing subject," with "several moments in Kelly Marcel’s script that sound a little redundant, and more than a little silly, when uttered on screen." Dornan, "given the job of inspiring lust, fascination and also maybe a tiny, thrilling frisson of fear, succeeds mainly in eliciting pity. ... [He] has the bland affect of a model, by which I mean a figure made of balsa wood or Lego. What vitality Fifty Shades of Grey possesses belongs to Johnson, who is a champion lip-biter and no slouch at blushing, eye-rolling and trembling on the verge of tears." Altogether, "Fifty Shades of Grey might not be a good movie — O.K., it’s a terrible movie — but it might nonetheless be a movie that feels good to see, whether you squirm or giggle or roll your eyes or just sit still and take your punishment."

The New Yorker's Anthony Lane notes, "the film, by dint of its simple competence—being largely well acted, not too long, and sombrely photographed, by Seamus McGarvey — has to be better than the novel. It could hardly be worse. ... It is gray with good taste — shade upon shade of muted naughtiness, daubed within the limits of the R rating. Think of it as the Downton Abbey of bondage, designed neither to menace nor to offend but purely to cosset the fatigued imagination. You get dirtier talk in most action movies, and more genitalia in a TED talk on Renaissance sculpture. True, Dakota Johnson does her best, and her semi-stifled giggles suggest that, unlike James, she can see the funny side of all this nonsense. ... The film is not just unromantic but specifically anti-romantic; take your valentine along, by all means, but, be warned, it’ll be like watching Rosemary’s Baby at Christmas."

USA Today's Claudia Puig warns, "Sitting through the turgid and tedious S&M melodrama that is Fifty Shades of Grey may feel like its own form of torture. Those looking for hot, kinky sex will be disappointed. Fewer than 15 of the movie's 125 minutes feature sex scenes. Discussion of contracts and objections over line items outweigh erotica. Even the graphic nudity grows numbing. The dialogue is laughable, the pacing is sluggish and the performances are one-note. Perhaps worst of all, chemistry is nil between Dornan and Johnson. Dornan spends most of his time frowning while Johnson stares vacantly and bites her lip. Clearly, she went to the Kristen Stewart School of Acting."

New York Daily News' Elizabeth Weitzman writes, "Credit goes to director Taylor-Johnson and screenwriter Marcel, who've stripped the first book of its biggest flaws, while still honoring its essence." Also, "anyone hoping the movie would really push the S&M envelope may find Christian's tastefully shot toy room a little … vanilla," but "what Taylor-Johnson does best is balance atmosphere with action: Desks, benches, bathtubs and red leather beds are all creatively employed, as is camerawork designed to show us plenty of skin with just a few full-frontal revelations. Dornan, unfortunately, never evolves into anything more than a pretty face. But Johnson is a true find: She's so committed, she makes Ana's every discovery — in or out of the bedroom — convincing."

The Guardian's Jordan Hoffman calls it a "better-than-it-has-to-be adaptation. ... [It] still manages to be about people, and even a little bit sweet." The sex scenes "are numerous, lengthy and frank, but they aren’t smutty. Only occasionally does it dip into Red Shoe Diaries-territory. By and large, these key scenes really are there to advance the plot, and only the most buttoned-up prude will be scandalised. The ropes, cuffs and collars are all standard issue kink." Additionally, "Johnson’s Ana squeezes believability out of one of the more silly romantic entanglements in recent popular culture."

The New York Post's Sara Stewart says it's a "steamy, cheesy adaptation" that "never pretends to be other than what it really is: soft-core porn for the ladies, diluted with an R rating. ... The inscrutable Dornan’s a pretty good fit for control-freaky Christian, though he can’t keep that Irish lilt out of his lines. Johnson, for her part, makes Anastasia less annoying than the golly-gee-whiz hayseed she is in the book." By also adding unexpected humor, "director Taylor-Johnson and screenwriter Marcel have also done away with the cringeworthy parts of the novel, ... [but it's] not without its howlers" like playing piano to show emotional depth.

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