Fifty Shades Freed comes barging into the national #MeToo debate like an unwelcome and embarrassing guest.
Its story of a sadistic plutocrat who likes to punish women in his sex dungeon and insist that they sign nondisclosure agreements accounts for millions of book sales and a billion-dollar movie franchise, consumed eagerly by an enthusiastic female audience.
Knee-jerk conclusion: Your feminist #MeToo op-eds say no, no, no, but your cheeseball erotic fiction says yes, yes, yes.
Well, not so fast.
If you've actually read the original text, Fifty Shades of Grey, as I was once forced to do, you see that it's more complicated than that.
It is in fact the story of a young woman, Anastasia (Dakota Johnson), who enters into a explicitly stated sexual contract with wealthy kinky guy Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), and uses that contract to consistently outmaneuver him, taking him from what he wants (contractual sex), to get what she wants — love, marriage, cuddling, mansions, sports cars, jewelry, and other things that arrive in the conclusion to the trilogy, Fifty Shades Freed.
That, you might argue, is the most dangerous fantasy of all — that you can game or reform a man whose distinguishing feature is his predatory sexual instincts.
"I have rules, and I want you to comply with them. They are for your benefit and for my pleasure," Christian mansplains at the outset of the first book, but he adds a host of caveats: Anastasia can leave anytime, she needn't do anything she doesn't want to do. Says Christian: "I want you to want to please me."
Stories about the way men and women negotiate sex, power, money, work and relationships — Anastasia ends up working for a company Christian owns — should make the Fifty Shades trilogy relevant and exciting. They are, somewhat mysteriously, the opposite of that.
The movies grow progressively more lethargic as the Anastasia/Christian relationship has grown more conventional. In Freed, they're married. The movie opens with a weirdly joyless wedding scene, then invites the audience to stare at garish displays of 1 percenter materialism. He carries his new bride over the threshold of his private jet, they honeymoon at the Louvre, and oil each other up along the Cote d'Azur, his yacht anchored nearby.
Back home, it's shades of domestication. Anastasia wear pajamas, cooks for Christian, and starts to badger him about starting a family. This conversation is interrupted by bad soap opera plotting.
Anastasia's former boss Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson) is now stalking both of them, leading to a couple of lame chase scenes, and some questions.
Why is Jack obsessed with her?
What is his connection to Christian?
When will this ever end?
Christian has always been the world's least exciting sex-obsessed billionaire, and in domesticated form, he just gets worse — cooking, weeping, playing Paul McCartney love songs on the piano. Now, they're out of the "playroom" and into the kitchen, where she smears ice cream on his torso. In a few months they'll be pulling Doritos from beneath the couch cushions, and the playroom will be full of SpongeBob stuff.
Turns out soft-core refers to what was inside Christian Grey all along.