Will Fifty Shades Have Enough Sex? (No.)

Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson. Photo: Universal Pictures

Am I supposed to be turned on by this? We’re just days away from the cheekily timed Valentine’s Day release of the Fifty Shades of Grey movie, and at this point, its publicity push is like a cold shower made of pus and gravel. If there’s one thing suggested by the ads, the trailers, and especially the behind-the-scenes news from the movie’s creators, it’s this: Fifty Shades of Grey will have negligible amounts of sex and the erotic power of a redacted FBI memo.

I know it’s a well-worn cliché to criticize the lack of sexual charge in the novel (which I haven’t read), but we should reflect on the monumentally unsexy final stages of this movie’s rollout. Groan-inducing lack of quality in the novel is one thing — it was barely edited fan-fic. But the movie is being made by Hollywood professionals who should know how to conjure an erotic ad campaign and PR wave. They’re failing.

This movie’s whole raison d’etre is that it’s an adaptation of a novel about sex. Kinky, slightly forbidden sex. No one would see it for any other reason, no one would produce it for any other reason. It should be marketed in a way that makes us think it’ll be a more ambitious take on straight sex than anything else we can see in a multiplex. And yet every day, we’re inundated with more promotional images and footage that show things you could find in any number of basic-cable dramas from 1992.

What’s more, we keep finding out that the filmmakers wanted to drain the sex out of the picture in order to focus on … the thrilling plot, I guess? Vulture already did a thorough roundup of the changes made in the transition from novel to movie, and I won’t reiterate all of them here. But here’s the money quote from director Sam Taylor-Johnson, given to Variety: “It’s say it’s pretty 50/50 [sic],” she said, describing the split between sex scenes and non-sex scenes in the flick. “I think the sex scenes are integral to the story. They are not gratuitous. It tracks the story.” Ah, yes, the story: the factor that propelled the novel series to the top of the best-seller lists. People just couldn’t get enough of the plot of Fifty Shades of Grey.

Then came reports that only 20 of the film’s 100 minutes actually have sex in them, which is, well, not 50 percent. And now Taylor-Johnson is saying she and the novel's writer, E.L. James, had “proper on-set barneys” (she means fights, and God bless British slang) about the sexual tone-down.* And oh God, there are so many horrific quotes from the stars about how hard it was for them to find any sexual chemistry between one another, as Defamer's Kelly Conaboy brutally demonstrated in a quote roundup/analysis yesterday. (Personal favorite: female lead Dakota Johnson describing the sex scenes as "not, like, a romantic situation. It's more, um, like, technical and choreographed, and less — it's more like a task.") In politics, this is what they call bad optics.

But we should have seen it coming. I mean, look at the now-irritatingly iconic poster image, first released a year ago. A man in a suit stands with his back to us, facing a window. He’s looking at Seattle, one of America’s least sexy metropoles. The photo is in black and white and … grey (an awesome visual pun). In an italic, serif typeface seemingly picked at random from Microsoft Word’s font list, we get enormous text declaring, “MR. GREY WILL SEE YOU NOW.” That’s it. Or consider the less-seen companion poster, with the same dumb text and color palette — but with a woman’s jaw and neck. She’s biting her lip. Okay, great, congratulations on replicating a generic lipstick ad.

The trailers are only slightly more titillating but still fall way short of generic depictions of PG-13 sexual attraction and activity. The main trailer starts with a man putting on a shirt and tie, while a woman puts on a shirt and does her hair into a ponytail. Then the man is in a car. Then the woman talks to the man and he says, “I’ve always been good with people,” and we see him jogging on a cloudy day. They hang out in a hardware store, a helicopter pad, a plane, and a very cold-looking room with a piano in it. For about six seconds, we see them kissing more, and we see maybe three extremely boring sex toys. The last shot is the man’s hand next to a glass of wine.

I’ll confess my privilege: I’m a heterosexual man, so maybe I’m not the target demographic for images of Christian Grey. But who the hell are the people who find this sexy? I can’t imagine anyone is going to see this movie because of its PR campaign. If people go, it’ll just be due to brand-name recognition. That might actually be even worse for the studio: If people know anything about the books, they’ll be expecting, y’know, sex. Seems like they’re unlikely to get much of it.

*This article originally misattributed the quote about "proper on-set barneys" to Jamie Dornan, not Sam Taylor-Johnson, and misstated Taylor-Johnson's gender.