Secretary (2002) / Comedy-Drama

MPAA Rated: R for strong sexuality, nudity, behavioral disorders and language      Running Time: 104 min.

Cast: Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Spader, Jeremy Davies, Lesley Ann Warren
Director:  Steven Shainberg
Screenplay: Erin Cressida Wilson



You might love it, you might hate it, but one thing we can all agree on is it's different than the norm.  I suppose I fall somewhere in the middle of love and hate with SECRETARY, mostly because it was not nearly as humorous as it tried to be for much of the first half.  I'm giving it a mild recommendation because it finally becomes a decent flick for the last half hour, although I gather a good many people may not stick around that long, whether through impatience or just because they find the subject matter to be a turn-off.

SECRETARY is based on a short story by Mary Gaitskill, which was adapted by director Shainberg, whose previous work has the irony of being called HIT ME.  It's the story of Lee Holloway, a 20-something misfit, still living with her parents and looking for a job.  Her house is dysfunctional, with an alcoholic father and kooky mother, Lee is often cutting or burning herself just to feel the pain and watch the wounds heal, and which she was even put away in a mental hospital for.  She applies for and gets a job working as a secretary for E. Edward Grey at a nearby law firm, and his occasionally stern reprimands have the odd effect of making Mr. Grey attractive to the submissive Lee.  The two soon form an odd relationship where Lee is punished for her mistakes in the form of spankings, which only increases her likelihood of making them.  Edward is conflicted about whether to feel attraction or repulsion to the relationship, as Lee's obsession with him grows.

The performances by the two leads are the saving grace of the hit-and-miss film, as this kind of material requires performers who aren't afraid of jumping head-first into their roles.  Gyllenhaal will probably gain much of the accolades since she is the lesser-known of the two, along with the fact that Spader seems to be typecast into the sexual deviant role after films like SEX LIES AND VIDEOTAPE, CRASH, and, well, practically every role since has him in an unconventional sexual relationship.  Hey, if you find something that works, why not stick with it?

Shainberg has some clear talent as director, but makes a near-fatal error of making every character in the film eccentric, and the result for much of the film is strained attempts at dark humor.  As the film begins to phase out the supporting characters, the film finally begins to settle in, especially when Lee is determined to get her man at any cost.  Although this is billed as a different kind of love story, I have a difficult time buying that Lee truly is in love with Edward at the time she professes it.  It would seem she just loves being abused, and her only attraction to him is the fact that he is eager to administer the punishments from time-to-time.

SECRETARY is a superficial, sexually-tinged story that will probably be heralded by the S&M crowd as a great film, slandered by the puritanical elements as pornography, and split the rest of viewers, of which many will find it bizarre, yet oddly entertaining.  This is a very adult film, and even if the nudity is minimal, the sexual situations push the envelope as far as it will go and not get an NC-17 rating.  It's definitely not for everyone, but if you read the plot above and it still piques your interest, it's probably for you.  As for me, I liked the attempt for something different, I just wish the humor was up to the level of the talented performers.

2003 Vince Leo