SECRETARY (director/writer: Steven Shainberg; screenwriters: Erin Cressida Wilson/from the short story by Mary Gaitskill; cinematographer: Steven Fierberg; editor: Pam Wise; music: Angelo Badalamenti; cast: James Spader (Mr. Grey), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Lee Holloway), Jeremy Davies (Peter), Lesley Ann Warren (Joan Holloway), Stephen McHattie (Burt Holloway), Mary Joy (Sylvia), Michael Mantell (Stewart), Amy Locane ( Lee’s Sister); Runtime: 104; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Steven Shainberg/Andrew Fierberg/Amy Hobby; Lions Gate Films; 2002)
“The film was cute and well-acted and tastefully directed and its humor well-placed, but it went nowhere with its muted story.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
The virtues of sadomasochism is the source of inspiration for this genial romantic comedy directed and written by Steven Shainberg (“Hit Me“). It’s about two emotionally disturbed depressives, two so perfectly matched that it would be a crime if they couldn’t hook up together, who find…love…over some stern office discipline. This film’s worth is in the keen performances from the two stars Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader, but what it’s short on is plot and staying power. It’s loosely based on a short story by Mary Gaitskill from her fiction collection “Bad Behavior.”
Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal-a possible star in the making) has just been released from a mental institution after being treated for a nervous breakdown. She also suffers from a poor self-concept and an inability to cope with stress. When faced with difficult situations it causes her to inflict wounds to her body. When not depressed she’s a charming and attractive playful filly in her early 20s, who returns to live in her parents’ house and reacts quite shaken to see that her father Burt (Stephen McHattie) is still a drunk and her mother Joan (Lesley Ann Warren) is still overprotective of her. Stressed out at her sis’s wedding reception in her parents’ house, she retreats to her room and uses a sharp object she keeps in her handbag to cut herself. Fed up with staying home all day, she brings along a resume vouching for her high test scores in typing and applies for a secretarial job with obsessive-compulsive lawyer Edward Grey (James Spader). He’s an odd duck if there ever was one. His grim personality is matched by his grim office, which is darkly decorated in a hodgepodge Victorian style featuring a mazelike corridor lit by hall lamps attached to the walls. There’s also a hothouse setting that seems out of place in a lawyer’s office, which allows him to grow orchids. But strangely he has no computers, as he still insists on using only a typewriter. After being hired, her mother drives her back and forth to work. She also sits in the car waiting for her some 5-hours before she gets off work; that is, until the boss takes charge of the submissive girl and orders her to walk home. Lee has a boyfriend she knew from high school, Peter (Jeremy Davies), who also had a nervous breakdown and can only marginally function. He’s a dead ringer for her type of personality, except there’s no sexual chemistry between them, at least not on her part. His dad (Mantell) is proud that he works in JC Penny and has his own cell phone at work. His overbearing mother Sylvia (Mary Joy) tries to push for an early wedding for these two misfits.
When the dominating, take-charge, twitchy Grey is upset with her spelling mistakes, he asks her to bend over the desk and he spanks her leaving welts on her thighs. This would disturb most, but let’s remember who we’re talking about here. To her surprise, she really gets off sexually on this S&M and decides she loves him and not her inept boyfriend. Peter’s sexual greenness and inability to be a good groper revolts her after meeting her master. Lee likes her discipline lessons so much she trots into the ladies room to masturbate. She seeks her boss out for further spankings, but he does not respond to her willingness to have sex and instead continues the formal boss to secretary relationship that hinges on his addressing her as Ms. Holloway.
As absurd as this love relationship is, the two characters are always viewed as real people. The filmmaker never demeans them when they are doing their socially unacceptable thing. Spader has the right tone for his role as the master, never getting out of character or out of control. Gyllenhaal is an engaging submissive who is looking for emancipation through sexual freedom. By the time the final scenes roll around she becomes more erotic by enlarging her ordinary girlish attractiveness through her smashing performance. She’s also, at last, seen in the nude in one of the final scenes. The film was cute and well-acted and tastefully directed and its humor well-placed, but it went nowhere with its muted story. The spanking scene was the only memorable one, as all other scenes seemed padded.
REVIEWED ON 11/2/2002 GRADE: C
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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