Secretary (September 24/02)
Though it's being marketed as an S&M comedy (which it is, make no mistake about that), Secretary turns out to be - at it's core - a romance film every bit as sappy as a Meg Ryan movie.
Maggie Gyllenhaal stars as Lee, a troubled young woman who (as the film opens) has just been released from a mental hospital. She's evidently tried to kill herself on a number of occasions, and resorts to cutting herself when things get too stressful. It's clear she's just looking for some order in her life, and she gets exactly that when she goes to work for a lawyer named Mr. Grey (James Spader). He's a demanding boss, requiring everything to be just so, and Lee flourishes in this rigid environment. Things take a turn for the bizarre when Mr. Grey discovers Lee's penchant for self-mutilation. He insists she stop, which she does, and takes their relationship to the next level. And if you've seen any of the ads or trailers for the film, you know exactly what that next level entails. They begin a relationship based on domination, with Mr. Grey ordering Lee around and forcing her to do his bidding. Lee doesn't mind any of this; in fact, it's just the sort of relationship she's been looking for. It requires her to simply follow orders and not make any of her own decisions, which is something that apparently always bothered her.
It's certainly a unique premise for a film, but director Steven Shainberg never elevates the material to anything more than the obvious. The movie's based on a short story, and that's no surprise. Though it runs for close to two hours, Secretary feels as though it could've been told in about 20 minutes. Once Lee and Mr. Grey begin their sadomasochistic relationship, the film doesn't really go anywhere. And then, when the movie turns into an all-out romance, it's not entirely convincing because while Lee has been semi-obsessed with Mr. Grey the entire time, he's never shown any interest in her beyond that of dominated employee. The bottom line here is that the subject matter just isn't that interesting, mostly because it's not entirely believable. The character of Lee, though she's fantastically played by Gyllenhaal, never quite rings true; her awkward manner of speaking and bizarre peccadilloes seem as though a creative screenwriter invented them. Her unique mannerisms never feel organic, which prevents the character from ever becoming entirely believable. But she is the sort of character most people will go their entire lives without knowing (myself included), so it's entirely possible that Lee is a dead-on portrayal of this type of person.
That's essentially a minor complaint, though; the real problem here is the lack of a storyline. It's the kind of movie that, if you identify closely with the characters, you'll probably enjoy the heck out of. But if they seem forced and artificial, Secretary will be about as compelling as a Corn Flakes commercial. Still, the two lead performances are quite stunning (particularly Gyllenhaal, who's surely destined for great things), so it's not a complete wash.