Fifty Shades Freed is simply garbage and it makes little effort to be anything else.
Fifty Shades of Grey was a middling movie trying like hell to craft a watchable film from objectively terrible source material. Its sequel, Fifty Shades Darker, was even worse, attempting to pivot into erotic thriller territory from its dark fairy tale origins. But this final chapter has it all figured out. Fifty Shades Freed is simply garbage and it makes little effort to be anything else.
It’s a special kind of admirable: a franchise embracing its inherent trashiness, if only as a last resort. In a more perfect world, the long-form romance between virginal English Lit major Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and inexplicable billionaire sadist Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) would have been adapted by Paul Verhoeven from the start, or some similar auteur capable of wringing maximum, puerile pulp from these awful and problematic novels. Instead, Nowhere Boy’s Sam Taylor-Johnson gave the first outing the old college try. She lent the film a simulacrum of charm and imbued the proceedings with the implication of sexiness if not the real thing.
But James Foley, the director behind the classic adaptation of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, was never going to be a suitable replacement. Shooting the second and third films back-to-back, he clearly gave up somewhere through the double-sized production and accepted his best bet for a watchable movie was in self-consciously creating a humorous disaster, à la The Room. Fifty Shades Freed is more pedestrian in its shittiness, but for all its failings as a coherent narrative, it’s a far more satisfying theatergoing experience than the last two chapters, if only because of how patently ridiculous the final product is.
In the interest of full disclosure, this reviewer was lucky enough to see the film in an audience that featured a very vocal, very amused baby, uncomfortably sat in his mother’s lap just one row up. It’s entirely possible that the film’s many curiously framed sex scenes might actually be titillating for viewers watching the movie without the present of a loudly braying toddler, but it’s hard to believe they’d be any less laughable in the absence of the absurd coos and cackles of a child whose mother thought bringing a goddamn baby to a movie about uninteresting white people fucking to glacial pop tunes was a good idea.
Though billed as a romantic drama series, the Fifty Shades films are, first and foremost, a very boring fantasy. Author E.L. James basically made a trilogy of books out of Twilight fan fiction, and the worst decision she made was removing the vampires. In a lot of ways, the shoddy machinations of her characters are even less realistic than the shining bloodsuckers of Stephenie Meyer’s popular novels. The first film was about a naïve young woman falling for a rich sociopath. This was a totally normal protagonist courting a romantic lead who handed her a literal fucking contract about when and how he could order her to use butt plugs. The second film eschews the transactionally transparent nature of Christian Grey’s standard dominant/submissive paradigm for an attempt to have a regular-ass relationship, with predictably poor results.
That movie ended with Christian and Anastasia getting engaged, after introducing Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), a rival for Christian created for no other reason than to make our blatantly unwell male lead seem more palatable by comparison. Fifty Shades Freed opens with a sanitized portrait of marital bliss that more closely resembles a Turks and Caicos commercial than a narrative film, furthering the franchise’s borderline comical obsession with a milquetoast approximation of absurd wealth. This is a film that opens with Anastasia being shocked that Christian owns a private jet, after two whole fucking films of spending time with a literal billionaire who already owns a boat and a helicopter. More than the series’ copious, unimaginative depictions of non-vanilla coitus, the Fifty Shades films love to show off rich-people-shit without the grandeur or thrill of even the most bargain-bin rap video. But their idyllic status quo is interrupted by something truly hilarious: a revenge thriller masquerading as a corporate espionage subplot.
See, in any onscreen romance, it’s not difficult to write what brings two people together. That’s the easy part. It’s much harder to conjure believable reasons to keep them apart. That’s where the drama is. Luckily, Christian and Anastasia’s relationship is a horrific farce, a Jenga tower of red flags, self-deception and fundamentally incompatible character traits. But unpacking all the myriad reasons these two shouldn’t be together or constructing a narrative that would earn each individual’s personal arc crescendoing with them reconciling after having grown into the best versions of themselves would be too hard. Instead, Fifty Shades Freed uses straw man antagonist Jack Hyde to break into Christian’s business, stalk his wife and kidnap his sister (alleged pop star Rita Ora).
It’s cheap, diversionary drama at the expense of asking some difficult questions about the film’s central romance. Christian Grey is a billionaire orphan whose mother was a crackhead prostitute, and he was molested for years as a teen by one of his adopted parents’ older friends. As a result, he’s a stunted, tortured manchild with enough disposable income to shield himself from the need to ever face his trauma or grow as a person. He just whips strangers who look like his mom and makes them sign binding legal documents to mask his sadism as consensual sex. This is the towering romantic figure this franchise is foisting upon audiences!
So, when Anastasia finally breaks down and tells Christian he needs to fucking grow up, it’s entirely too late. We’ve already sat through two films that thought it was more important to show us “steamy” scenes of boning set to the Weeknd and Beyoncé than to engage the characters dramatically. Cumulatively, this is six-and-a-half hours of a love story that any filmmaker worth their salt could have condensed into one complete film with arcs and character progression and resonant moments. But what this film lacks in every conceivable metric for cinematic success, it more than makes up for in absurdity.
Outside of Johnson’s relatable portrayal of Anastasia, absolutely no one else in this movie is even trying, so the performances are a spectacular kind of wooden. Dialogue, adapted from the books by the author’s supremely untalented husband Niall Leonard, read like placeholders from a workshop full of first-time dramatists. There are moments between characters cringe-worthy enough to not seem out of place in a Tim & Eric sketch. As the film progresses, everyone involved seems to care less and less in a way that feels refreshing. It’s hard to criticize this film for the sins of the franchise as a whole, when this outing is the only one with, like, actual jokes and the sense that it’s okay to turn your brain off and laugh.
Maybe expecting dramatic coherence from a film where a kidnapper interrupts a menacing conversation about ransom to marvel at one of the characters’ product-placed cell phone and its camera specs is the wrong approach. Perhaps being glad that such a poorly conceived trilogy is finally over is the right move. With any luck, this is really the end. It’s far more likely this will get rebooted and regurgitated in two years’ time, but if a boring novelist can dream about a rich daddy dom saving her from mediocrity, moving her into his mansion and buying the publishing house she works for, we can all dream of a world where there are only three Fifty Shades films and no more.