There are lots of things to laugh at in Fifty Shades Darker, the sequel to the sex-blockbuster about two mouth-breathing J.C. Penney models who are into light S&M.
Some of those funny things are done on purpose: God bless Dakota Johnson’s ability to find the comedy in these outrageously straight-faced shenanigans and, when handed a particularly risible bit of dialogue, to at least mumble her way through it like an 8-year-old girl roused from a good nap.
Some of those funny things may not have been done on purpose, but they’re still amazing, like the fact that Taylor Swift’s big song plays over a montage of rich white people sailing (do you think that was a contractual stipulation?), or the creeping realization that Jamie Dornan, cast as tortured sex god Christian Grey, has the same enormous pupils as the “This is fine” dog.
And then there’s the amazingly campy scene where many of the movie’s stars line up to ritualistically humiliate Kim Basinger, which features Dakota Johnson throwing her cocktail in Kim’s face (including the lemon rind!), Jamie Dornan insulting her sexually, and Marcia Gay Harden striding into the scene out of nowhere to slap Kim Basinger upside her wet head. The fact that Kim responds to this triple whammy of shame by defiantly dropping her napkin as though she were dropping a mic is merely the cherry on top of this movie’s cake, which is shaped like a butt plug.
But none of these moments are the one I came here to praise. There is another scene in the movie, so pure in its incidental WTF-ery, that it earned the biggest, most sustained laughs at the press screening I went to. It comes at the emotional climax of the movie, where Christian and his semi-sub Anastasia are having their umpteenth confrontation over whooooo caaaaares. (That’s not a spoiler. They talk about whooooo caaaaares a lot.)
Their fight occurs at Christian’s birthday party, which his family is throwing at the giant mansion he grew up in, so Christian and Anastasia quickly retire to his childhood bedroom to continue their heated talk. She sits on the bed, distraught. He beseeches her to commit to him, despite everything that has happened during this movie.
And behind him, looming over Jamie Dornan in every shot where he’s acting his little heart out, is a giant poster of the 2004 Vin Diesel vehicle The Chronicles of Riddick.
Listen, Jamie Dornan is a handsome fellow who is a better actor than we give him credit for, but up against that Riddick poster, he’s powerless. This thing is pulling focus despite not even being in focus. You can’t put something that random behind your lead in such a pivotal scene! So why did they?
Is it an homage to the fact that The Chronicles of Riddick, like Fifty Shades Darker, is also the middle chapter in a planned but waning cinematic trilogy? Is it a gentle reminder that Christian, despite being played by a 34-year-old, is actually supposed to be 27, the right age for a former Riddick-loving teen? Or, given how little crucial information we learn about young Christian — basically, just that he hated his drug-addicted birth mother and he loved Vin Diesel’s tertiary franchises — is it meant to be a clue as to what formed his sadistic inclinations?
The likeliest explanation is the most craven: Universal simply seized the opportunity to cross-promote another franchise, context be damned. Fifty Shades Darker’s box-office rival The Lego Batman Movie does this in spades: Given the opportunity to recruit a new rogues gallery, Lego Joker pilfers from other properties owned by parent company Warner Bros., like Godzilla, Harry Potter, and Gremlins. A shared cinematic universe that keeps floating all boats is the current studio goal, but failing that, these marketing departments will look for other, more unexpected ways to encourage extracurricular sampling.
Fifty Shades Darker’s Riddick shout-out is only the latest version of that, but blessedly, it’s also the most deliciously ridiculous. What other context-free cross-promotion will Universal dream up for next year’s third Fifty Shades movie? Will Christian Grey collar Anastasia, smirk, and say, “This is just like The Secret Life of Pets”? Might Ana counter Christian’s parental tales of woe with a well-timed reference to vintage studio moneymaker Meet the Fockers? Or will Anastasia load up on Ben Wa balls before riding the Jurassic Park flume at Universal Studios? For all of Christian Grey’s bravado, it’s clear: Despite his boundary-pushing, there is no connection too outrageous for the kinky minds who work in studio marketing.