Fifty Shades Of Black is one of those instances where a parody deviating from its inspiration would have been fine. Most of the people who see it will probably be Wayans brothers fans rather than Fifty Shades Of Grey fans (the overlap can’t be that big, can it?), and neither group has the most discriminating taste to begin with. Yet Fifty Shades Of Black follows the plot of Fifty Shades Of Grey beat by beat, taking an oddly paced story full of baffling characterizations and warped moralizing and layering a bunch of crude sex and race humor on top of it. It’s an uphill battle if there ever was one.
Basically, if you’ve somehow managed to avoid E.L. James’… let’s call it “vision” up to this point, these movies are about a virginal college student, here named “Hannah” (Kali Hawk, evoking Dakota Johnson in bangs and mousy cardigans), who meets a mysterious, handsome billionaire, Christian Grey/Black (Marlon Wayans, with more facial expressions at any given moment than Jamie Dornan in the entire original film), who, as it turns out, is into some kinky shit in the bedroom thanks to an early experience with an older woman. He says he doesn’t do romance, she says she doesn’t do genital clamps, they have a creepily intense affair anyway. Helicopters, rain, and minimalist interior design feature prominently. Fifty Shades Of Grey ends with the lovers making eye contact as elevator doors close. Fifty Shades Of Black ends with Hannah getting her head smashed in those doors.
But even as it takes jabs at its source material’s quality, Fifty Shades Of Black suffers from similarly half-baked writing. Dialogue scenes between Wayans and Hawk all feel like abandoned stand-up bits, like an extended exchange of Cuba Gooding Jr. quotes that culminates with the line, “I’ve got to stop bingeing on Netflix.” Many of the scenes in the movie follow this same formula: elaborate setup based around a recent movie, repetitive physical gag/African-American oriented pop-culture reference, lame punchline, repeat. If comedy is like sex, all about buildup and release of tension, then this movie can’t get it up.
And that’s too bad, because when Wayans allows himself to deviate from his formula there are a few effective moments of un-self-conscious slapstick, like when he surprises Hannah by hiding in the laundry hamper in her bedroom. (There’s a reason Wayans has had such a long movie career. He’s a talented physical comedian.) Speaking of, this movie really plays up the stalker aspect of Christian Grey’s—sorry, Christian Black’s—personality, albeit not toward any sort of feminist end. In fact, Fifty Shades Of Black has something to offend everyone, including jokes about drugging women’s drinks, jokes about Woody Allen and Bill Cosby unrelated to the roofie joke, Black Lives Matter jokes, white women talking in exaggerated “urban” accents as a joke, and jokes about tricking a blindfolded woman into unprotected sex. And let’s not even talk about poor Jane Seymour’s racist adoptive mother character.
But beyond the initial “ew,” there’s really no need to get worked up about any of that, because they are dumb jokes even more so than offensive ones. It’s really pretty mind-blowing to think about all the time and money that went into hiring the crew and lighting the sets and decorating them—the art department did a great job re-creating the sets from Fifty Shades Of Grey, by the way—and all the photocopying and emailing and phone calls and spreadsheets that went on behind the scenes of this movie, just so Marlon Wayans could make a “vaginas are gross” joke. It doesn’t take a comedy genius to write this stuff; when lines like “I’d like to bite that lip” or “this is my playroom” from Fifty Shades Of Grey are invoked, the resulting gag goes exactly where you think it would. So if you think weird tongue stuff and exaggerated genital protheses are hilarious, this might be a mildly amusing 92 minutes. Just be quick about it—those Whiplash jokes aren’t getting any fresher.