2017 | rated R | starring Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Marcia Gay Harden | directed by James Foley | 1 hr 58 mins |

Studio Pitch: Continue the story of Fifty Shades of Grey with the 2nd book, drop some contemporary pop music over it and – boom – like printing money.

Watching Fifty Shades Darker I had a hundred questions. Why were women gobbling these books up a few years ago is an obvious one, but also how does Christian Grey run this massive company while compulsively micro-managing his girlfriend’s haircuts? And how was this story a full novel?

Darker is the connective filler between Fifty Shades films, stretched to two hours. It doesn’t really have a plot, motivations, an arc or conflicts, just ping-ponging back and forth with Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) while she decides if she wants no more part of , or is all in with, Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan)’s life where S&M control in the bedroom often leaks out into jealousy, control and closed communication. Fortunately, to help her in this decision she works for the one guy in Seattle who might be worse than Grey. Caught between a guy who talks her into a phony happy hour so he can be alone with her and a guy who bluntly responds “the answer is NO” when she notifies him she has to go on a business trip, she chooses control freak.

But the creep boss cliché isn’t the films’ story, nor is the appearance of one of Christian’s former submissives who stalks around Anastasia and creeps into their house only to be subdued by Christian’s Dom Jedi mind powers. Nor is Christian going down in his private helicopter so his mother (Marcia Gay Harden) can worry about him until a minute later when he walks through the door like nothing’s happened. It’s all just stuff that happens. The movie moves in an awkward episodic way from one easily resolved issue to the next. This entire movie could have been boiled down into 10 or 20 minutes at the beginning or end of one of the other movies, but the Kramer vs. Kramer elevator closing ending was too good to pass up in Grey; and who knows what the heck is going to happen in Freed given this movie ends pretty conclusively.

Darker isn’t exactly darker either. A masquerade ball centerpiece teases the possibility that Christian is bringing Anastasia to an Eyes Wide Shut secret sex party that turns out to be way tamer. The running gag seems to be that everything that might initially seem challenging to Anastasia or break her out of her comfort zone just turns out to not be not that bad or not what she thoughts and all’s well that ends well. Everything just works out for these two. Johnson and Dornan are still terrible here, making it a ridiculous choir to watch cinema’s most boring couple stare blandly at each other for 2 solid hours. Dornan is playing our romantic leading man no different than he played his character on The Fall. And that guy was a child killer.

Fifty Shades of Grey, such as it was, had a story to it. A meek young woman discovering this guy and his S&M lifestyle. It was also a truly hilarious work of unintentional camp. Christian showing up at Anastasia’s brunch out of nowhere, constantly insisting he doesn’t do “the boyfriend thing” and immediately whisking her off on romantic dinners and trips to meet his mother and Anastasia striking out the “anal fisting” clause in their relationship contract. It’s as funny as it is a deeply cynical look at the modern Hollywood view of romance. Darker has a handful of laugh-out-loud moments, and is definitely racier than the first film, but isn’t as kitschy.

It doesn’t even have the semblance of an arc for how this relationship affects Anastasia. Does she become more like him? Does she grow confident in herself and pull away? Neither really, she just does what the story requires her to do to keep itself treading water until the next movie. She’s had enough of Christian’s antics until she suddenly hasn’t. On some level it may not even be aware of, these movies follow “The One” trope where Anastasia Steele is somehow the outlier, that unique person that possesses a near mystic ability to unite the realms, resist Christian’s mind control and inspire him to feel again where no other woman could. We’re supposed to think that we are like Anastasia. We are the unique ones and not the other drones who came before and made no difference. That’s the fantasy. Or at least that’s the echo of the idea behind it, the movie doesn’t even commit to that. And with no personalities, no threats and no chemistry between the leads, who cares?

P.S. I’m not sure what to make of director James Foley, who seems to be a studio hire as good as the material. He was behind this and the laughable Halle Berry project Perfect Stranger, but also behind a great episode of Hannibal and more notably, the Wayward Pines episode “The Truth”, which for my money is one of the best hours of TV recently. He’s set to direct the final installment of this miserable series.