Underneath its self-consciously provocative BDSM trappings, the Fifty Shades Of Grey series has always been about as subversive as an ad for a honeymoon resort. As the series has unfolded, the fantasy being peddled to its overwhelmingly heterosexual female audience has revealed itself to be not about kinky sex, but about catching and taming a seemingly untamable man. That fantasy finds its ultimate fulfillment in Fifty Shades Freed, a film that more lovingly caresses the contours of bad-boy billionaire-turned-devoted husband Christian Grey’s car than his chiseled pecs. Turns out, what really turns series creator E.L. James on is well-heeled domesticity.
All the narrative hallmarks of the Fifty Shades films are still there: The absent-minded plotting (as has become customary for these films, a major subplot is suddenly dropped and never resolved), the torturously hacky dialogue (if you disliked “Laters, baby,” you’re going to hate “It’s boobs in boobland here”), the graceless exposition dumps, the breathy pop-R&B soundtrack. The infamous sex jeans from the first film even make an appearance. What has changed, aside from an obvious comedy punch-up on Niall Leonard’s script, is the dynamic of the relationship between clumsy Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and brooding Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). For along with half of Christian’s considerable wealth, now that she’s “Mrs. Grey,” Ana has gained self-respect. This mitigates some of the more damaging messaging of the earlier films, as Ana can now stand up to Christian’s emotionally manipulative, controlling tendencies (remember, kink ain’t the same as abuse, kids). She even shows agency once or twice. But what replaces it is just as risible.
Aside from the return of the villainous Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson, resembling nothing more than a Looney Tunes wolf), Ana’s psycho ex-boss, who, as it turns out, has a shoehorned-in and thoroughly moronic connection to the Grey family, the major conflict of Fifty Shades Freed is a disagreement between Ana and Christian over whether or not they want to have children. Christian would prefer to continue indulging in clichéd Parisian vacations and/or private planes for a few years, while Ana is eager to reproduce right away, because that’s what married people do. (And no, they did not discuss this before getting married. That would imply competent screenwriting.) Anyway, Ana, ever the wacky naif, forgets to get her birth-control shot and gets pregnant, sending Christian into a flat emotional spiral that leads to one of the worst “drunk” performances of the new millennium. And the option of terminating this particular pregnancy and trying again later is never even brought up, for when Ana isn’t bound by leather cuffs, she’s bound by her own biology. There’s that conservative streak again.
But no one watches a Fifty Shades movie for its feminist politics. What about the sex scenes? Those are relatively brief and noticeably watered down this time around, too, though the nudity is more in-your-face in this film than the previous installments. (As always, American Psycho did the objectifying male shower scene better.) Director James Foley does get one sexy bit right, in a montage that juxtaposes Ana sipping coffee at work in a distracted reverie with the erotic memory that’s preoccupying her thoughts. But mostly Foley saves the filmmaking flourishes for sweeping overhead shots of yachts and intimate close-ups of expensive cocktail dresses, belying the film’s bedrock priorities. Get yourself a (wealthy) man and fix his psychological baggage with the pure, biologically driven love that is your feminine birthright. Everything else is gravy—or Ben & Jerry’s ice cream licked off of a bare thigh, as the case may be.