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'Fifty Shades of Grey' review: Highly unsatisfying

Dakota Johnson as Anastasia Steele in "Fifty Shades

Dakota Johnson as Anastasia Steele in "Fifty Shades of Grey." Credit: Universal Pictures and Focus Features

A pretty young virgin gets a taste of the lash in "Fifty Shades of Grey," the big-screen adaptation of E.L. James' best-selling novel about a bondage-driven romance. It's big, all right: The movie plays in supersize IMAX this Valentine's Day weekend. As Anastasia Steele, the film's frequently dumbstruck heroine, might say: "Holy cow!"

You might be equally agog at how an R-rated film full of kinky sex and dirty talk could be so painfully dull. "Fifty Shades of Grey" stars a fetching Dakota Johnson as Anastasia, a college student pining for romance, and Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey, the handsome billionaire with a riding-crop fetish. The actors are attractive, and we see just about every naked inch of them. Despite all the waist-down action, though, the movie has no pulse. What's more, it's dead from the neck up.

The blame begins with James' artless, witless source material, which began its literary life as a work of "Twilight" fan fiction. That explains the story's Northwest setting, Seattle, and the maddening way its adult characters behave like dopey teenagers. Grey, a vaguely defined "businessman," is an unconvincing mix of Regency aristocrat and high-school hunk, while Anastasia is another Bella Swan ("Twilight"), though with even bigger daddy issues.

"Fifty Shades of Grey" pitches itself as a story of sexual awakening and dark desires. Grey, incapable of intimacy, wants Anastasia to sign a contract submitting to various thrashings; Anastasia, however, wants to cuddle, too. This emotional tug-of-war sometimes involves literal rope, but the argument quickly grows tiresome (Kelly Marcel wrote the screenplay, a thankless job). Just as boring are the sex scenes, which -- let's face it -- are the only reason you might show up. Director Sam Taylor-Johnson brings a strangely dry and sanitized feel to the bedroom collisions (blue lighting, pop songs), which never get much kinkier than ice cubes and peacock feathers.

Neither the book nor the film has the guts -- or perhaps the brains -- to acknowledge Anastasia's basest desire: money. Whenever she's unsure about taking another beating, Grey buys her a car or shows her his enormous helicopter. It works, too. Now, that's the true meaning of domination.

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