50 Shades of John C. Reilly
“I’ve never read anything so badly written that got published. It made Twilight look like War and Peace.”
— Salman Rushdie
Some things are best left to the imagination.
Things like what happens inside sausage factories. Sewage treatment plants. Executions. And most certainly, the incomprehensible runaway internationally best-selling erotic trilogy known as the “50 Shades of Grey.”
It’s not that sex and its kinkier variants don’t translate well into a visual medium. To the contrary. Online porn’s popularity and its richness of diversity refutes any notion that most people aren’t inherently voyeuristic. We’re all just a little bit curious about what’s hidden behind closed doors. Fact is, people like watching other people — whether on the street, while riding subways, inside bars and restaurants, and especially if they’re having sex.
Perhaps that’s why E.L. James’s three trashy novels have sold faster than free bullets at a gun show. The British author might not have taken English literature to any bold new heights — one wonders what the next generation’s literary scholars and social critics will write about this fluky phenomenon — but she certainly legitimized the twisted art of bondage and discipline. S&M has oddly become mainstream now, and E.L. James stands atop this wobbly rubble of the verboten, holding a leash in one hand and a riding crop in the other. Whether admitting it or not — sorority sisters, middle-class moms, and even great-grandmothers have by now heard about, read parts of, and widely discussed this modern-day remake of this classic fairy tale, which is the story of the sweet innocent virgin being swooned and swept away by a dreamy prince, albeit bearing the crest of an alternative lifestyle.
Come to find out, this prince’s kingdom consists of a dungeon. Moreover, the sadosexual autocracy ends up being a four-walled fantasy chamber, with just one naively willing subject in the control of her lone ruler. The submissive submits. The master masters. There’s some skin, sporadically interrupted by flashes of weird-looking sexual appendages. Filter in some heavy breathing. But for those anticipating a climactic money shot, there’s only disappointment. Instead, picture matriarch E.L James on her way to the bank riding in the back of a chauffeured Rolls Royce. That’s the real money shot of this tediously trivial tale of exploitation.
It’s not what you might think which is the pretty young girl getting exploited. Rather, it’s the rest of us buoyed by our curiosities and captive to this latest social craze. It’s literary McDomination for the masses somehow dragged down to even lower depths by an even worse movie, as unimaginable as that prospect seems. “50 Shades of Grey” ends up being an extended porn scene that runs about 1 hour and 27 minutes too long. It’s a porn scene with way too much talking. We don’t even get to enjoy any vintage mustaches or creepy music.
With the movie’s release timed for this Valentines Day weekend (oh, the irony), Hollywood reveals its insatiable lust for one final money grab, eager to skull fuck the lucrative “50 Shades” franchise like the last sailor at tail end of a gang bang before it finally fades into oblivion. We can only hope much sooner rather than later. Currently playing on more than 3,500 screens across America, not to mention many, many more in the U.K. and elsewhere, the studio is doing everything it can to dishrag one more squeeze out of the trash pile, debasing just about everything connected to it in the process. Following the proven “it takes money to make money” formula, a stylistic film was indeed created, consisting of surprisingly strong production values. Too bad then, there’s not much of a story to go along with all the glossy imagery. Then again, why would this come as a surprise? After all, the film was based on E.L. James’ material. There’s only so much Hollywood and a $50 million film budget can do with banality. We wouldn’t expect Schindler’s List to come out of Barney the Dinosaur, would we?
The idea of one human exercising ultimate control over another is compromised by the everything-you’d-expect, rich experienced guy meets pretty naïve young girl and then proceeds to “educate” her — which has become all too familiar. Predictably, the series has drawn a heap of social criticism from all fronts, especially among feminists who are (justifiably) disturbed with the retro messaging which would seem to encourage not just wholesale misogyny, but the notion that pretty young girls are little more than playthings for rich guys.
And so for this very season, “50 Shades” is indeed anti-feminist. But that’s only half of the problem. The warped tale is even more of an insult to the average male. Consider this. Why must the central figure in the story be a super wealthy 30-year-old CEO with a skyscraper bearing his name who flies his own helicopter? Why not a truck driver, or a gym teacher, or a dental hygienist? Oh wait, now that could really get interesting. Why does the size of a man’s bank account have to do with the prowess and creativity of his libido? Can’t a construction worker be sexy, too? Is the college girl really looking to submit herself for the purposes of experimentation, or is she actually seeking what amounts to a sugar daddy?
Or, try this on for risqué possibilities: Have the rich and powerful CEO submit to the girl. Of course, this won’t happen — except in a sequel perhaps, yet another rung down the ladder into the basement of lost inhibition.
But let’s get back to the initial story. Imagine everyman actor John C. Reilly cast as Christian Grey, the self-centered control freak wielding all the whips and ball gags. And Melissa McCarthy playing the role of Anastasia Steele, the impressionable student. Those are the types of real people, regular citizens among us who probably live next door, and teach our kids, and change the oil on our cars, who practice fantasy alternatives in their spare time.
The horror. The horror.
Speaking of those memorable two words, they were once spoken on film by Marlon Brando, who in 1973 shocked everyone by following up his Oscar-winning role in “The Godfather” by accepting the lead in what was a scandalous film at the time on a similar topic, titled “Last Tango in Paris.” It was originally Rated X. Unlike this movie, “Tango” was truly groundbreaking and ultimately revealing, connecting the fragile physical and emotional dots of the human sexual psyche, revealing not just the grandiose fantasy of a mythical sexual relationship as “50 Shades” does, but a far deeper vulnerability within the two lead characters, those aches soothed by companionship and surrender. It also gave all of those who saw it a kinky new idea for butter.
This failure to get past the one-dimensional shock and awe of “oh look — it’s a blindfold!’ is what ultimately compromises “50 Shades” and renders it as rubbish. One thing’s for sure. It’s certainly no “Tango.” It’s neither risky nor revealing. It’s crutched upright by a illusory damsel and her prince which bears no sense of reality.
The fact that 100 million volumes have already been sold to date, and a major potion picture with a huge production and marketing budget has been made based on a book that probably never deserved to be published in the first place, that is, if Salman Rushdie is to be believed, doesn’t so much reveal how truly shallow this material is. Rather, it confirms how utterly insubstantial our reading and viewing tastes have become.
I can’t even imagine how bad a sequel might be.
As Brando said, “The horror. The horror.”
Writer’s Note: I did not pay to see “50 Shades of Grey.” Instead, I killed 20 minutes at a movie Cineplex before seeing another film. That was more than enough.