By Stephanie Zacharek
February 9, 2017

In theory, Fifty Shades Darker is great no matter how bad it is. To call it a lousy movie is missing the point: It’s a functional movie, a girls-night-out commando mission whose job is to get in, get out, and get the job done in between.

And depending on what you’re looking for, it pretty much does. This sequel to the 2015 movie Fifty Shades of Grey—based on E.L. James’ wildfire best-selling novel, which, years before its mass-publication success, began its life as online Twilight fanfiction—picks up more or less where that story left off. Sweet, principled, if now not-so-innocent Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) has broken it off with Seattle’s kinkiest rich bachelor Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). She’s just started a job as an editor’s assistant at a small publishing house: Her boss, Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), is a robustly attractive publishing-type dude who wears a chambray shirt with what looks like the vest from a three-piece-suit. How this is the outfit of anyone’s fantasies I do not know, but let’s not get hung up on that.

Christian can’t live without Anastasia and lures her back, promising he will no longer get off on the “rough” sex they’ve previously had. (As I recall, at the end of the last movie he spanked her too hard with some tickly thing.) She makes him pinky-swear—OK, not literally—and the two proceed to reignite their relationship, lukewarmly this time. But Anastasia is, as before, drawn to Christian’s secret bedroom, with its red velvet walls and assortment of chests procured from Pier One. What’s this? she asks, daintily holding up a restraint, its metal buckles dangling innocently. Game on.

All of that makes Fifty Shades Darker sound racier than it really is. The harsh reality is that most erotica geared toward women is ridiculous, of the soft-focus “eating-a-peach-while-blindfolded” variety. Fifty Shades Darker (directed by James Foley; the first was brought to us by Sam Taylor-Johnson), even with all its nods to BDSM, is no exception. That’s chiefly because it, like so much of literature “geared” toward women—whatever that really means—is so eager to have it both ways, or, rather, all ways: Christian has a serious problem! (In one of the movie’s many howler moments, he informs Anastasia, in a line that could have been lifted from a ’50s sex-ed training film, “I’m not a dominant. The right term is sadist.”) But it’s not his fault! You know, his childhood! He can be changed! But the sex is so hot! And he’s the man I really want to spend my whole life with! Honey, please pass the toast! And so forth.

It’s all fantasy, so what’s the harm? There isn’t any. And if millions of girls or guys go out to see Fifty Shades Darker with their friends for a giggle or two, then the world is a happier place. It’s also tempting to make the case for both Fifty Shades movies as positive forces that might move women toward better understanding and acceptance of their own sexuality. If it works out that way for anyone, great. But who wants to read the killjoy who’s going to turn Fifty Shades into a PSA? Surely not I.

But there’s one significant problem with both Fifty Shades movies that’s impossible to ignore. Dornan is just a dud. The problem may have more to do with the conception of the character than anything else: How do you play a self-described sadist who’s really just a misunderstood cuddlebunny underneath? Not even Olivier could do it. (Or maybe he did, if you count Heathcliff.) But Dornan, with his brooding frat-boy demeanor, seems to sap energy away from Johnson, an appealing performer who has some of her mother’s saucy dazzle. (She’s the daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson, and Tippi Hedren’s granddaughter.) Johnson is also fearless about doing nude scenes—there’s nothing prissy about her, and if there’s any sizzle to be found in Fifty Shades Darker, it’s happening around her. Please pass the handcuffs.

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