Midway through Fifty Shades Freed, there is a scene in which a man has just been found creeping through the enormously fancy apartment where newlyweds Ana (Dakota Johnson) and Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) live and practice their increasingly non-kinky and un-erotic "BDSM lifestyle" (I don't really know from BDSM, but I don't believe that "ice cream on the nipples" qualifies). Ana's bodyguards, Sawyer (Brant Daugherty) and Prescott (Kirsten Alter) have subdued vengeful stalker Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), but are distressed to learn that neither of them has a pair of handcuffs, or any other kind of restraint. "We do" says Ana brightly, realising a beat after the fact that this is perhaps overly revealing. It's a funny moment - funny on purpose, even - and it's the most I've liked anything the Fifty Shades trilogy since the goofy, sexy, caustic contract negotiation scene in 2015's Fifty Shades of Grey. And it's for exactly the same reason: Dakota Johnson has airtight comic timing and a wonderful way of making ridiculous material seem ridiculous to her character while still taking her job as an actor seriously. These movies do not deserve her, and I hope and pray they do not become a millstone around her neck (I'm not sure if this fall's Suspiria is going to be the career-saving gesture she needs, though I think it's a smart piece of casting).

That legitimately charming, successful moment is a precious diamond in what's otherwise the worst Fifty Shades yet. The film takes director James Foley, screenwriter Niall Leonard (the husband of producer E.L. James, from whose novels the films have been adapted), cinematographer John Schwartzman, production designer Nelson Coates, and several other creatives from last year's Fifty Shades Darker, so it's no surprise at all that the film ends up feeling basically identical to that one, though with a slightly stronger sense of despair. Note that none of these people were involved with the first Fifty Shades of Grey, which is increasingly looking like a really excellent film in comparison. At least it had a libido! And some beautiful shots, costumes, and sets! The sequels just feel perfunctory and dumb, this one all the more so: while it has more and more explicit sex scenes than Darker, they are presented with clinical disinterest by Foley, who seems to view them more like an obligation to get through rather than the only thing the film actually has to justify itself.

The plot this time around is- well, I should say the plots this time around are that Ana and Christian are having the typical spat when one of you is a happy professional woman and one of you is an emotionally scarred orphan, adopted by stupefyingly wealthy people and risen to even more stupefying wealth by running a corporation whose actual products are somewhat unclear, and deals with your scars by sublimating your desire to abuse women into elaborate BDSM contracts. That is to say, he explodes with rage when she decides not to change her work e-mail (at a book company he owns) from "anastasiasteele" to "anastasiagrey". Amazingly, in this year of our Lord 2018, the film does not seem to be instantly on her side over this issue. It doesn't matter, because the plot thread gets abandoned. Meanwhile, she's growing distrustful of the snooty architect Gia (Arielle Kebbel), who proposes tearing down their adorable old lakefront mansion they've just bought and replacing it with some insanely geometrical Bauhaus monstrosity. This also doesn't matter, because the plot thread gets abandoned. He is, himself, annoyed by the sexy author whose book she's just readying for publication; you will no doubt be amazed when I say that this doesn't matter, because the plot thread gets abandoned. All the while, they are being hunted by Jack Hyde (whose name is an incredibly subtle reference to an obscure work of horror literature), and this does matter and isn't abandoned, though it's exceedingly annoying because nobody involved acts like normal people, and also the film is merely boring as an erotic character drama, but it is acutely terrible as an action thriller. There is a car chase that moves so slowly through rush hour traffic that I'm half-certain it's supposed to be a parody. "I'm a race car driver" says Ana at one point, which is adorable because Dakota Johnson realises how fucking dumb that is.

The problems here are legion: the astonishingly cold, ineffective sex scenes are up there, but more as a symptom of the film's - and franchise's - critical flaw in the form of its central couple. There is not a molecule of chemistry between Johnson and Dornan, and based on his performance here, I don't know that Dornan could spark chemistry with anybody else. He's never been good in these movies, but this is the absolute nadir of what I could imagine a professional actor being able to get away with in a movie designed to be taken seriously. Like... it's not that he's "mugging" for the camera, but he keeps making these weird, rubbery faces. Imagine an alien that doesn't know how our facial muscles work slowly manipulating its mouth, forehead and eyes into the shape of a smile. Now, secondarily, imagine that this happens in a scene where the character isn't supposed to be smiling.

There's also the astonishing screenwriting gaffes that come from a man with no significantly interesting work to his name slops something together that will pay due respect to his wife's unbearably awful prose.* The dialogue is clumsily declamatory, with too many ungainly clauses and irrelevant content, the subplots (as noted), tend to appear and disappear at will, there's no sense that these people have any life at all outside of the plot. Ana's high-powered publishing job is a particularly egregious example of this last problem: her work seems to consist solely of "have an office with pretty decor", while waiting to be whooshed away to some other mildly gaudy rich people vacation in fancy places that look like Versailles before the Revolution. "Increase the font size by two points" we see her say in her biggest moment of prestigious fiction editor authority.

And there's the kitsch, most of which comes courtesy of the film's generic pop-R&B soundtrack (inarguably the most aesthetically satisfying thing on tap). Particularly the goofy, shitty honeymoon montage at the start of the film, with its hyper-literal editing ("I want to get drunk with you" go the lyrics, as we see the couple drinking champagne for no longer than the duration of the line), and tacky-ass postcard vision of rich people tourism. Paris looks appropriately slick and soulless.

God, if only there were more kitsch! This probably comes as close as any of these have to "so bad it's funny" excess, and maybe if I was with the ideal audience - several mildly tipsy middle-aged women would be my guess - I'd have had a grand time, instead of sitting in deathly silence as the solitary viewer in an empty auditorium. Which absolutely does not help with the feeling that this is all just oddly overcooked, undersexed porn. Anyway, the film is super dumb, and there are enough moments where it (knowingly or not) leans into that, that I think it's probably the most enjoyable of the Fifty Shades movies; but it's still much more boring and pointless and plotless than anything else. And unrelentingly square and conservative, for something whose entire selling point is transgression; given that this is the United States of America, I doubt very much that's a coincidence at all.

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

*With the caveat that I haven't read Fifty Shades Freed, but the four pages of Fifty Shades of Grey I soldiered through included possibly the most sub-literate prose I have ever encountered.