If director Sam Taylor-Johnson and screenwriter Kelly Marcel elevated Fifty Shades of Grey above E.L. James' original material, the sequel makes a strong argument for why we shouldn't have nice things.
Fifty Shades Darker begins shortly after the elevator doors closed at the end of Fifty Shades of Grey, abruptly ending both the film and Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and Christian Grey's (Jamie Dornan) relationship. ("Relationship.") But after a few weeks of heartbroken pining, Ana is easily wooed back to Seattle's wealthiest sadist, this time, supposedly, for an actual relationship with "no rules, no punishments and no more secrets."
Darker is funnier than Grey, and mostly intentionally so. The movie gets good mileage out of Christian Grey performing boyfriend duties, like grocery shopping and cooking and not flogging his girlfriend. Contrary to the title's promise of darkness, it starts with less BDSM and more rom-dram. (Lest you get the wrong impression, Christian Grey is still a monster, saying things like, "He wants what's mine" and having Ana tailed so that he can compile a file on her. All of which Ana objects to, but not really, chalking it up to "bizarre" behavior.)
A Fifty Shades episode can only get so far without returning to the "kinky f**kery" that had Twilight moms panting between carpool picks-ups, though, and as directed by James Foley (Glengarry Glen Ross and Madonna's "Papa Don't Preach" music video), the sex scenes here are bolder and more risqué. Johnson and Dornan's chemistry is more playful and palpable; their sex scenes ballsier, pushing the boundaries beyond anywhere you'd expect the movie to go. (Two words: vaginal beads.)
Absent of the extended contract negotiations of the first film, Darker is propped up with the addition of an unhinged stalker, a predatory boss and vengeful former lover. (Kim Basinger adds some welcomed camp as Mrs. Robinson, Christian's statutory rapist, but is criminally underused.) It has the makings of something wild, but as adapted by Niall Leonard (Mr. E.L. James), never goes full-on bonkers, only teasing salacious drama before quickly fizzling out. Why not push this over the edge?
Fifty Shades is Lifetime movie schlock dressed up in a satin-y, expensive sheen. If Darker -- and the franchise as a whole, quite frankly -- took itself a little less seriously, if it embraced the camp instead of trying to perform high cinema through half-baked drama, it would be a hell of a fun romp. Then again, after one helicopter crash sequence that was so random and pointless that I audibly exclaimed, "What?!" the girl next to me started to cry. So, you know, movies are subjective.