Dakota Johnson, as Anastasia Steele, makes a specific “Are you kidding me?” face whenever Jamie Dornan’s Christian Grey does something controlling and unforgivable in “Fifty Shades Darker.”
It’s somewhere between side eye and an eye roll, and she has to make the face a lot.
Like when billionaire Christian makes it clear that he’s stolen Ana’s bank account number so he can deposit money, against her wishes. Or when he forbids her to go on a business trip. Or when he buys the publishing company where she works, so he is technically her boss.
“It’s all wrong. All of this is wrong,” Ana says — because it very much is.
Of course this is the sequel to “Fifty Shades of Grey” — the adaptation of E.L. James’s romance novels about two mostly humorless people who need to be together — so Ana, despite maybe knowing better, doesn’t break up with him. She forgives Christian’s pushy behavior at every turn.
Then she gets on his boat. Which looks very expensive.
If, in this climate, you can stand to watch a 27-year-old billionaire bark commands at his girlfriend, and you enjoy the wealth porn of the original “Fifty Shades,” you have a solid offering in “Fifty Shades Darker,” which has more plot than the previous film, and is somehow a few shades lighter and more fun to watch than the first.
When last we saw Ana and Christian, they were staring at each other on two sides of an elevator, after Christian’s spanking led to a breakup. In “Fifty Shades Darker,” the characters are back together within minutes, so that they can spend the film having sex or battling three big threats to their union. The first is Leila (Bella Heathcote), Christian’s former submissive, who’s now suicidal and breaking into their homes. The second is the jealous Elena (Kim Basinger), an older woman who, having initiated Christian into his sexual lifestyle, wants him back. The third is Jack Hyde, Ana’s devious boss at a Seattle book-publishing company.
Elena and Jack are the most fun. Basinger gets a few great “Dynasty” scenes (a drink is thrown!), and harassing book publisher Jack (Eric Johnson, of “The Knick”), would have been a good match for Heather Locklear’s Amanda Woodward on “Melrose Place.”
Their antics beat the film’s sex scenes, which start to get a bit grating after a while. There are too many of them, and even when accessories are added, I found myself groaning (not in a sexy way), desperate for more narrative.
The good news is that Dornan looks happier to be playing moody Christian Grey than he did in the first film. In the original “Fifty,” the Irish actor — who’s hypnotic as a misogynist serial killer on the BBC thriller “The Fall” — seemed like he’d filmed the movie after taking a Benadryl. In “Darker,” though, Dornan delivers jokes with spirit, and appears comfortable strutting around shirtless under the direction of James Foley, who took over for the more artful Sam Taylor-Johnson. (Foley’s resume includes flashy television shows “House of Cards” and “Billions.”)
But even with an improved Dornan, the movie still belongs to Johnson, a character actress capable of making light of a movie pretending to be darker. Johnson has a facial expression for even the flattest moments in the film, and seems to say, with those eyes, “We’re stuck in this guy’s penthouse for the next two hours; we might as well enjoy it.”
FIFTY SHADES DARKER
Directed by James Foley. Written by Niall Leonard; based on the novel by E.L. James. Starring Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Eric Johnson. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 118 minutes. R (strong erotic sexual content, some graphic nudity, language).
Meredith Goldstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.