For the better part of Fifty Shades Freed, the movie is what the franchise’s trailers always promised: a convulsing, whispery, soft-rock fuckfest. I’m sure some sleuth out there will clock the actual time each of the franchise’s three movies spend in the act, and I can’t say for certain this final installment delivers the most actual bang for the buck, but it sure feels like it. In their post-nuptial glow, Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele (er, Anastasia Grey, as established in a belabored plot point) find fit to do the deed far outside their famed velvet playroom: They bone on a kitchen table, in cars, on boats, and in bathtubs with pristine wilderness views. There is a fine culinary sex scene involving ice cream that may prompt new Screen Actors Guild rules protecting actors’ tongues. A rain shower mists perfect butts. In deference to the films’ contractual coyness about frontal nudity, Jamie Dornan’s pubic hair works overtime on the edges of the frame, and director James Foley (of the great bad movie Fear) makes prodigious use of Dakota Johnson’s chest. For a while, especially for a certain species of moviegoer, it’s all pretty excellent.
If you don’t understand the appeal of this kind of quasi-erotic, soft-lipped cinema, the better of which we used to get from directors such as Adrian Lyne, I’m not sure I can sell you on it. It’s basically just porn, you’ll say. It’s brainless and demographically insulting and not even hot. This is all true, more or less. But the same moviegoing loyalty that drives people to, say, comic-book movies has always driven me to movies like Fifty Shades, and I can safely say I’d rather watch five more of these than another Marvel movie (well, most Marvel movies). There is something special about seeing a bawdy spectacle of feigned sex and quivering emotion test the boundaries of Hollywood’s rigid traditionalism, and their goofy thrall over audiences make for especially fun experiences in a theater. These movies are derivative, often ridiculous, and, in the case of Fifty Shades Freed, unquestionably hilarious, but they’re also the overheated comfort food I crave.
Fifty Shades Freed is a worthy heir to the genre, and probably the best version of a Fifty Shades movie there could be. It is also, it should be said, fairly terrible. If you are unfamiliar with the basics, and for some reason still reading, the series concerns tortured orphan billionaire Grey, virginal ingénue Steele, and the pair’s whirlwind and sometimes disturbing faux S&M romance. This culminates (spoiler, I guess?) in a bizarro marriage. In Freed—the series’ “climax,” as posters love to note—the extended honeymoon is interrupted by a past series character who is really too trivial to explain. He’s imported here to wield the occasional butcher knife and ruin the entire third act by distracting the characters from boning.
Things technically happen in all of the Fifty Shades movies, but they tend to have such a perfunctory quality that the end credits sneak up on you because it seems like the movie hasn’t even really started yet. Alas, because it feels the unfortunate pressures of a big finale, Fifty Shades Freed contorts itself into an especially boring Law & Order: SVU episode, when all Christian and Anastasia should really be searching for is another kitchen island. (I get that the movie needs some conflict, but can’t they just fight about the drapes?) The ultimate conclusion is, as they often are on that show, unnecessarily violent and ugly. Then there is the usual vulgarity of the characters’ impossible privilege. I lost count of worried servants and impromptu vacations on private jets.
I grant all of this. But the movie also has many pleasures outside of the, uh, pleasure. Director Foley, when not covering the budget by turning his movie into an Audi commercial, shows some of the spark that animated much of his previous work. In one crosscut sequence, he focuses on Anastasia as she remembers an earlier session with Christian, a clever dance between past and present (and a nod, perhaps, to the commuter-train sequence that earned Diane Lane an Oscar nomination for one of the genre’s classics, Unfaithful). There is a superbly staged gag involving a detained suspect and some private handcuffs, another sally forth in the series’ sadly failed quest for self-awareness. And Johnson and Dornan—and I’m not sure how I can actually believe this—have pushed past their signature stiffness and forged something like chemistry. The movie closes with a self-congratulatory montage of the series’ greatest hits, and it’s hard to deny they’ve grown into these characters, for better or worse.
I’ll leave it there, for these movies’ self-selecting audience knows who they are and what they seek. I suspect one day many of this series’ professional detractors will come across one of the movies on television and abandon their resistance for a little longer than they expected before denying themselves its ludicrous charms once again. The rest of us will be eating the ice cream.