"Fifty Shades Darker" digs deeper into the demons and traumas of Mr. Grey, as played by Jamie Dornan. Much of the film's entertainment is watching Dakota Johnson, as the comparatively normal Anastasia "Ana" Steele, try to act opposite a distorted dreamboat who wakes to exercise on a pommel horse and who knows all the hairdressers in Seattle. Occasionally she implores him to stop acting so weird — but not often enough.
And then there are our glimpses into his past that make for some of the movie's most unintentionally funny moments. In his childhood bedroom, we spy a picture of teenage Christian in front of the Taj Mahal and, most amazingly, a "Chronicles of Riddick" poster. Is the key to Christian that he's a huge Vin Diesel fan? Was it a passing fancy or was Christian — this globe-trotting sexual enigma — equally enthusiastic for subsequent installments of "Riddick"? Alas, we will never truly unlock the mysteries of Grey.
"Fifty Shades Darker," which has maintained its lily-white palette despite its title, takes up the action three weeks after the previous film left off. Christian, seeking to make amends after their split, comes calling for Ana, promising he's ready for a more "vanilla" relationship after the violence of his desires frightened her away. The couple quickly get back into the swing of things. They shower. They ride elevators. They shower again. The sex scenes are a little steamier and the sculpted bodies of Johnson and Dornan are no less up to the task. But there's a slight shift in point of view.
Director James Foley ("Glengarry Glen Ross") has taken over the reins from Sam Taylor-Johnson, who clashed with James. Whereas the author wanted slavish adherence to her, ahem, prose, Taylor-Johnson had the gall to try to improve it. She partly succeeded: The ably directed "Fifty Shades of Grey" was better than you'd expect.
The same can't be said for "Fifty Shades Darker," the kind of movie that's fun only when you're laughing at its flaccid attempts at drama. Not only was Taylor-Johnson replaced, the script this time was penned by James' husband, Niall Leonard. It plays out as a sequence of soft-core simulations with flourishes of melodrama that intrude (and are quickly dismissed) like unwelcome bedroom guests.
The real dominating force here, as before, is Johnson and the fluttering fluctuations of Ana's heart. So why does "Fifty Shades of Grey" belong to Christian? The movie doesn't hang on Ana's experience; she spends most of the film playing defense to Christian's psychology. Ana, who works in publishing, speaks of being swept away by Brontë and Austen, though we never see her reading a book. But she's the one who ought to be in control.