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'Secretary' is an odd, dark comedy about sexual dominance

Friday, October 11, 2002

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

Writing a review of "Secretary" may be almost as uncomfortable as watching portions of this peculiar but remarkable film, now at the Denis and Squirrel Hill theaters.


RATING: R for strong sexuality, some nudity, depiction of behavioral disorders, and language.

STARRING: Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Spader, Jeremy Davies.

DIRECTOR: Steven Shainberg.

Critic's call:


The disquiet in viewing the movie stems in part from its subject matter -- a sado-masochistic relationship between attorney E. Edward Grey (James Spader), who has a penchant for sexual dominance, and his secretary, Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who was recently released from a mental institution.

She was being treated (unsuccessfully, it turns out) for a compulsion to wound herself with sharp instruments.

When Lee visits Grey's office to apply for the job, the previous secretary is stalking out, leaving a trashed reception area in her wake. Lee doesn't ask, even when Grey, who himself seems a few bubbles short, tries to dissuade her from taking the job.

"It's boring work," he says.

"I like boring work," she responds.

He's nice enough at first, but then he starts responding to her typing errors like Saddam Hussein correcting President Bush's grammar. Before long, Grey opens fire, so to speak -- bending Lee over his desk and spanking her.

Later, he makes her crawl around the office like a dog in the midst of filing and typing. I can imagine feminists erupting in outrage and apostles of political correctness sputtering helplessly.

But that's the thing -- some people enjoy being submissive and absorbing physical pain. Lee gets mad when the spanking stops. What subsequently transpires may constitute the most screwball romantic comedy one can imagine, one that will make you rethink the whole notion of what love's got to do with it.

Spader plays Grey like a man living in his own private world -- he has an elaborate plant display in his office, where he often can be found nursing hothouse flowers. Jeremy Davies plays Peter, a hapless fellow who dates Lee but has utterly no idea what bakes her cake.

The revelation is Gyllenhaal, the sister of busy actor Jake. She takes what seems like an impossible role and invests Lee with a blinking humanity that allows her to go from blank slate -- on the outside, anyhow -- to full blossom. It's a remarkable performance that makes it possible for us to understand the person beneath the pathologies.

Obviously, "Secretary" -- written by Erin Cressida Wilson and directed by Steven Shainberg -- is a provocative movie about characters that most of us would consider perverse.

Shainberg shoots so tightly on the characters, and focuses on such private moments, that he forces you to confront their behavior. Yet the movie ends up in places you wouldn't expect, maintaining its internal logic and trying its best to win you over.

I'm giving you fair warning. "Secretary" is not for everyone. But surprising rewards await those willing and able to squirm through it.

Ron Weiskind can be reached at rweiskind@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.

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