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'Fifty Shades' brings R-rated eroticism to the multiplex

Here's a modest proposal: Let's try to be grown-ups about "Fifty Shades of Grey," the big-screen adaptation of E. L. James' erotic novel. Oh, go ahead and have a giggle. Screenwriter Kelly Marcel ("Saving Mr. Banks"), director Sam Taylor-Johnson ("Nowhere Boy"), and star Dakota Johnson ("The Five-Year Engagement") certainly have, and the movie's better for it.

For the uninitiated: This comedy-drama of sexual brinksmanship begins when a college journalism major with the sniffles gives up to her English lit roommate an interview with "the world's most eligible billionaire bachelor" (right there's a strong signal to give up any hope of realism). Anastasia Steele steps up to Seattle skyscraper Grey House and regards its magnificent erection (tee hee). On the 20th floor, she swoons and gasps her way through an interview with business magnate Christian Grey (Northern Irish model turned actor Jamie Dornan, all smoldering woodenness), who, lustily charmed, immediately begins putting the moves on her.

Those moves include an offer to be Grey's live-in sex slave, an on-demand submissive beauty to his dominant beast. Taking this language out of the cultural closet and into the mall theater is, in itself, a fascinating and not unwelcome phenomenon, despite the "Bondage for Dummies" attitude it inevitably entails. Also welcome is the return of R-rated eroticism to the multiplex, where it's been largely absent. Americans of consenting age, start your engines.

Audiences are treated to Steele's and Grey's anatomy (though, hold your horses, not full-frontally) as Taylor-Johnson tests the limits of the ratings board with each carefully executed camera move and edit, each choreographed salivation and thrust. Every small adjustment the movie makes to James' thinly veiled romance novel qualifies as an improvement, especially the heightened self-awareness of the comedic value of its perversity and the laborious parsing of non-disclosure agreements and a "binding" contract to ensure mutual consent. There's drama and humor, too, in the positioning of power as aphrodisiac and in the allegory the story offers for the paradox of committed romance: having to take people you love on their own terms while undergoing the necessary negotiations of a relationship.

Yes, "Fifty Shades of Grey" is absolutely ludicrous, dramatically clumsy, 50 shades of wrong. Yet with Taylor-Johnson's lively projection of Anastasia's thought process (which never cedes her agency) and the tortured Grey's sexual kink positioned more as a romantic obstacle than a woman's wildest dream, the franchise can have it both ways: "naughtily" turning on audiences and at the same time dramatizing enough bedroom dos and don'ts for a year's worth of couples counseling. If audiences can cool their loins long enough, they may have a productive think about the nature of their desires, their hangups and their capacities for giving as much as they get in their relationships.

Rated R for strong sexual content including dialogue, some unusual behavior and graphic nudity, and for language. Two hours, 5 minutes.

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