In this image released by Universal Pictures and Focus Features, Dakota Johnson, left, and Jamie Dornan appear in a scene from the film, "Fifty Shades of Grey."

In this image released by Universal Pictures and Focus Features, Dakota Johnson, left, and Jamie Dornan appear in a scene from the film, "Fifty Shades of Grey."

AP Photo/Universal Pictures and Focus Features

In its best moments, Fifty Shades of Grey plays like a Cinemax rom-com of bondage and submission. There’s a bit of a screwball comedy element, and the much-ballyhooed sex scenes are about as compelling as something you might guiltily stumble upon at 1:30 a.m. (or so I hear).

That’s at its best. At its worst, it’s merely ponderous and boring, unless you enjoy eavesdropping on an ingénue (Dakota Johnson) and a corporate titan (Jamie Dornan) as they parse the minutiae of their budding sadomasochistic relationship. Anastasia and Christian talk. And talk some more. Then they have sex, usually involving some manner of tying implement. He plays sad songs on the piano. It rains (they’re in Seattle). Then they have sex again.

A pulp literary sensation that sold through the roof as a novel (plus two sequels), Fifty Shades is more of an idea than a story on the big screen. That idea: A virginal lass who believes in romance can tame a damaged, libidinous hunk with serious intimacy issues. But who’s taming whom? This limp power struggle peeks its head out from the inertia from time to time, and occasionally even threatens to give Fifty Shades a little narrative thrust. But the dashes of momentum are just a tease. It’s hard to remember the last time this much sex was this tedious.

Like Patrick Bateman, the Huey Lewis-loving corporate titan played by Christian Bale in American Psycho, Christian Grey occupies a cold, sparse domestic space. As he puts it, he doesn’t do romance. But he does have a fully equipped (and handsomely lighted) S&M parlor, and a fleet of sports cars, and a private helicopter. And nice abs. Anastasia, meanwhile, bites her lower lip so often you’re tempted to start looking for tooth marks. The search makes the time pass quicker.

Here’s the irony of this allegedly scandalous sex movie: It’s actually not bad in its opening section, before the hot-and-heavy stuff starts. Anastasia interviews Christian for her college newspaper and finds herself both creeped out and turned on. There’s a wacky roommate (Eloise Mumford) and a passable, awkward getting-to-know-you phase between the prospective lovers.

But Christian isn’t into all that relationship stuff. He won’t even stay the night. What’s a girl to do, besides bite her lip every few minutes? Well, he is a decent piano player. And that helicopter is pretty sweet. Plus he’s good with a tie, and a flogger. And he can whip up a knot like a true Eagle Scout.

The people I know who’ve read the book, female and male, were dismayed by its abuse of the English language. But it was clearly popular enough to become a cultural phenomenon, and movies about violent sexual abandon, from Last Tango in Paris and In the Realm of the Senses to the intriguing S&M indie Secretary, have plumbed carnal desire for pathos and despair.

This ain’t that kind of party. Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t even bad in a fun way. I was half-hoping for something along the lines of Showgirls. Instead I looked at my watch a lot. That’s only supposed to happen during sex in Klute.

FIFTY SHADES OF GREY (C-)

Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson. R (strong sexual content including dialogue, some unusual behavior and graphic nudity, and for language). 125 mins. In wide release.

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