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In ‘Fifty Shades of Grey,’ it’s not the sex; it’s the stuff

Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey (left) and Dakota Johnson as Anastasia Steele in “Fifty Shades of Grey.”Universal Pictures and Focus Features via AP

There are several kinds of porn in “Fifty Shades of Grey”: house porn, clothes porn, closet porn, helicopter porn, all of them more interesting than the sex scenes that have caused so much breathless anticipation. Those come across as stiffly academic, a cataloguing of body parts and equipment. The passion is largely missing.

The real appeal is the stuff.

This is not how “Fifty Shades” is billed, or even how the light-core bondage novel was likely read by its legions of fans. Like “Twilight,” the vampire series that inspired it, “Fifty Shades” appeals to women of all ages because it retells an ageless fantasy: The dashing, mysterious stranger who somehow homes in on insecure you, sweeps you off your feet, helps you realize you’re actually special.


Only the mechanics are different. Edward, the charming-but-bloodthirsty vampire in “Twilight,” was a metaphor for sex as danger, offering reason to be chaste. Christian Grey, the billionaire with a bondage “playroom” in his penthouse, is a metaphor for sex as danger, but hey, why not?

The movie is fine, not really dangerous at all, and a lot funnier than you’d expect. It’s goofy escapism without much need for guilt. And for those who feared that Christian’s creepy stalkerism, which is largely a separate issue from his particular sexual fetishes, will come across as appealing: Don’t worry. It doesn’t.

Except in one way: It’s clear that his fabulous wealth makes him more palatable from the start. In a different actor’s hands, maybe Christian would at least have had some fiery charisma. In the form of Irish actor Jamie Dornan — who plays a serial killer on a TV show elsewhere — he’s just a stiff, scowling, frequently-shirtless guy who shows up unannounced in his would-be girlfriend’s apartment, tracks her to a bar via her cellphone GPS, sells her car without asking her, gets mad when she leaves town to visit her mother, then stalks her clear across the country and secretly catalogues how many Cosmos she’s drinking.


This only works, as seduction, when it’s wrapped up in a different kind of fantasy entirely. Imagine the story with a different sort of dressing — Christian Grey as a brooding freegan, who stalks our heroine in a beat-up Hyundai, lures her to his tiny house, then pulls a stash of whips and chains from a compartment under the bed-slash-sofa-slash-kitchen-table — and the whole thing falls apart.

Money is an aphrodisiac; there’s no doubt about it. “Twilight” dealt with this issue, too: Edward lived not in a coffin, but in a fabulous modernist glass-walled house on prime wooded real estate.

And no, none of this is especially new. Entire cable networks are built around our common desire to gawk at people’s stuff. Little girls dream of being princesses largely because the bling is second to none, and in those fairy tales that end with speedy betrothal, “prince” tends to be the more operative term than “charming.” If every frame of “Fifty Shades of Grey” was designed to be posted on Pinterest, so be it, right?

Right. Almost. But it still makes Christian Grey a special cautionary tale, for different reasons than many believe. Given the many true-life tales about shades of unhealthy relationships, it’s worth at least cataloguing our fantasies — remembering who gets classified as charming, for what reason, and what can obscure the real dangers in life.



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Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.