Way back in the foggy mists of 2015, the world was graced with Fifty Shades of Grey, a film that found a way to make BDSM dull as dishwater. And so, first principles: at least Fifty Shades Darker isn't quite as boring. It's not not-boring. But compared to the first film, it possesses at least this unassailable merit: it is considerably more stupid.

That's the only improvement Darker makes over its predecessor - and please, let's pause a moment to soak in all the implications of what I've just said. Aye, stupid does, in fact, equal better. It's something, anyway.

The stupidity has an obvious enough cause. Whereas FSoG had screenwriter Kelly Marcel fighting as hard as she could to bend E.L. James's massively bestselling, by all accounts sub-literate novel into something that felt like it spoke to the experiences of legitimate human beings, FSD was written by James's husband, Niall Leonard. It's important to point out that Leonard does, in fact, have a substantial television writing rΓ©sumΓ©, and it's not like he was just some yahoo plucked off the street. At the same time, one presumes that Mr. E.L. James would be disinclined to do too very much to take his wife's prose off course, and sure enough, the dialogue has devolved into expressions of warped, tortured exposition that has a cloddish literalness at all times. I am sorry to report that the phrase "inner goddess" still does not put in an appearance.

Anyway, the film picks up not so long after the last one ended, with Anastasia "Ana" Steel (Dakota Johnson) snagging a high-level job in a Seattle publishing firm, as personal assistant to one Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), and oh my God are you shitting me with this "Jack Hyde", I mean was the problem that Dr. Strangelove had already laid claim to "Jack D. Ripper?" I suppose "Calvin Igula" was too literary? Anyway, Ana is super excited to start working for Jack Hyde, and forget all about her brief, intense, frustrating fling with implausibly wealthy contract fetishist Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). But Christian hasn't gotten over her, and so he stalks her, go so far as to buy the company where she now works. Meanwhile, we get bits and pieces of his tragic backstory: the other women who have been Christian's sex contractees, the haughty older woman, Elena Lincoln (Kim Basinger) who taught him all about BDSM by abusing him like he now abuses his partners, his kindly adopted mother Grace (Marcia Gay Harden, who is uniquely willing to treat this as elaborately idiotic camp), who took him in after his own mother died of being a crack-addicted prostitute, and how this has filled him with a poisonous wish to dominate women who somewhat resembled her.

I would like to at this point take special pains to clarify that the "I only want to beat you to metaphorically punish my CRACK WHORE mom" scene is, in fact, pitched as though it was a sweet, aching romantic breakthrough, and not, say, the point where the slasher movie killer has murdered everybody but the final girl.

What prevents Fifty Shades Darker from being actively unpleasant in positioning a more-or-less explicit psychopath as a tortured soul who just needs to be saved by the love of a good woman is that first, Dornan is a lifeless slab of wax who doesn't come within a thousand yards of projecting any sort of edge or danger, and second, it's so fucking dumb. I cannot quite contain all of the dumbness without spoiling an amazing twist in the last third - let's just say that it follows Chekhov's famous dictum, "if you mention a helicopter in the first act, that helicopter must crash into the side of a mountain in the last act" to a T - but the mixture of convoluted plotting with virtually no actual conflict is quite a special, marvelous maddening thing.

For all that it's a better bad movie than Fifty Shades of Grey, though, it's not really any more interesting. The problem then as now is that the filmmakers are trying much too hard to spin something respectable out of inherently daft material. The director this time around is James Foley, a certain trade-down from Sam Taylor-Johnson; he lacks her appreciation of surfaces, is maybe the best way I can put it, and so where the first film actually did have a kind of ingenious way of crafting a sense of sexualised capitalism through its production design, costuming, and cinematography, Darker looks, frankly, a great deal more generic (and besides Foley, it's worth noting that production designer Nelson Coates, costume designer Shay Cunliffe, and cinematographer John Schwartzman are all new since last time).

Once again, Dornan's glacial imperviousness to any human emotion is starkly contrasted by Johnson's remarkably adept effort to salvage the non-entity Ana by means of inserting a mocking sense of humor and tart ironic detachment where the script doesn't at all imply that they might be found. Darker gives her more impossible material to perform - there simply isn't a scene like the initial contract negotiation, which Johnson so nimbly reconceived as parody, and there are a lot of "oh Christian, you do love me!" moments that couldn't be made comic without fundamentally breaking the narrative - but it also gives her a better supporting cast to bounce off of. Basinger is all bared teeth intensity as the smug villain, and Bella Heathcote's odd character (one of Christian's former BDSM paramours, now a sad, almost pathetic stalker) give her some pleasantly jarring angles to approach the plot from. Harden is kind of slightly actually great, as mentioned.

The net result of all of this is a film that's at least a touch more zany than the last one, even if it's still choking a bit on its own attempts to feint at respectability (and the sex scenes, even rarer than last time despite being the presumptive reason for all of this, have been woefully transformed by Foley into the stuff of '90s cable softcore porn, losing the modicum of interest that the last film almost managed to imbue them with). I am afraid the time has come to give up on a camp classic Fifty Shades picture; but at least Darker manages to have some camp, and sometimes when it doesn't have that, it at least has some kitsch. Not enough, but it's better than nothing.

Reviews in this series
Fifty Shades of Grey (Taylor-Johnson, 2015)
Fifty Shades Darker (Foley, 2017)
Fifty Shades Freed (Foley, 2018)