Marlon Wayans' latest spoof
At a minimum, a parody should be funnier than the film it’s sending up, but “Fifty Shades of Black,” a quick-and-dirty riff on last year’s S&M romance “Fifty Shades of Grey,” falls a laugh or two short of even that low standard. After wringing every last joke out of the “Paranormal Activity” movies with “A Haunted House” and its sequel, co-writer/star Marlon Wayans, co-writer Rick Alvarez and director Michael Tiddes handcuff themselves to the latest pop-culture phenomenon, but don’t have the requisite discipline for the material. It wouldn’t take much to tip the brittle kink of E.L. James’ fantasy into the realm of comedy — the movie itself did it occasionally, if not always intentionally — but the vulgar bigness of Wayans’ style blows right past deadpan. Nevertheless, though this dire outing won’t win Wayans any new fans, there’s still an audience eager to submit to his low-risk/high-yield formula for early-year spoofs.
“Fifty Shades of Black” follows the basic outlines of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” isolating half a dozen or more of its most talked-about scenes for parody. But Wayans isn’t willing to modify his broad, manic, anything-for-a-laugh schtick to approximate the buttoned-down stiffness of Jamie Dornan’s Christian Grey. As Christian Black, the dapper entrepreneur of an ill-defined empire, Wayans starts the movie committing acts of serial thievery — an aspect of his character that’s immediately dropped — and goes on to account for the “six essential teeth” he lost smoking the crack he made his millions selling. Bondage fetish aside, his Christian is defined by whatever such random traits seem to pop into the filmmakers’ minds.
As Hannah Steele, Kali Hawk has significantly more in common with Dakota Johnson’s coquettish Anastasia, including the dowdy clothes, the beat-up Volkswagen and the part-time job at the hardware store, but even her modesty is amplified grotesquely. It’s not enough that Hannah is plain — she’s so ugly she shatters mirrors. And it’s not enough that Hannah is awkward — she crashes into doors and gets her head smashed repeatedly in elevator doors. Between pratfalls like these and the whippings and humiliation in Christian’s “playroom,” Hawk endures more abuse than Jennifer Jason Leigh in “The Hateful Eight.”
Mirroring the setup of James’ story, “Fifty Shades of Black” sends Hannah to downtown Seattle to interview Christian after her roommate, a journalist for the college newspaper, falls ill. The twist here is that her more sexually experienced roommate, Kateesha (Jenny Zigrino), is sick with chlamydia and behaves at all times like a filthy castoff from an early John Waters comedy. Hannah and Christian do enough flirting in his office to prompt a follow-up encounter at the hardware store, where they express their mutual arousal on a pencil and a package of cable ties, respectively. Once Christian finally brings the virginal Hannah into his world of kink, she discovers his embarrassing shortcomings as a lover and he discovers that her appetite for S&M exceeds his own. When it comes time to negotiate a Tolstoy-length sexual contract, she keeps adding perversions that never occurred to him.
Such clever little ironies are in short supply in the movie, but the see-what-sticks approach does yield a couple of hits for every hundred misses, including a rack of whips that reference those used in Hollywood slave dramas and Florence Henderson’s game turn as a dominatrix version of J.K. Simmons in “Whiplash.” Appearances by such old hands as Jane Seymour as Christian’s racist adoptive mother and Fred Willard as her unsavory husband are no less committed to the jokes, but when those jokes nod tastelessly to Stand Your Ground or Black Lives Matter or extreme sexual deviance, comic professionalism alone can’t bail them out.
For a spoof that cannot focus on its target for more than a few seconds at a time, the only consistent element of “Fifty Shades of Black” is its hostility toward women, who are condemned as either prudish or promiscuous. Wayans tries to counter Hannah and Kateesha by playing a sexually inadequate buffoon, but the movie makes their degradation an ongoing concern, aiming jibes at their disgusting, smelly bodies and punishing Hannah for assuming she deserves better treatment from her new lover.
The only possible excuse is that Wayans and company seems to have no evident control over what they want “Fifty Shades of Black” to be, other than a teeming repository of half-baked set pieces and pop-culture shoutouts. There are jokes about Bill Cosby and Wesley Snipes’ tax problems, a wink to Kim Kardashian’s “Break the Internet” photo shoot, and quotes from an assortment of Cuba Gooding Jr. movies. At few points will the makers of “Fifty Shades of Grey” feel the sting of Wayans’ satirical whip. He and his team are too easily distracted.