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Steven Shainberg, USA, 2002

Rating: 3.0



Posted: October 19, 2002

By Laurence Station

Secretary, Steven Shainberg's very loose adaptation of Mary Gaitskill's short story of the same name, opens with a visually intriguing but ultimately disingenuous shot of Lee Holloway (an appropriately attractive/vulnerable Maggie Gyllenhaal) wearing bondage gear while carrying coffee and paperwork into her boss's office. Rewind six months -- ostensibly to find out how Lee got herself into such a compromising position -- and Secretary begins. What you see is not what you get, however. Despite an entertaining premise, Secretary ultimately falters under the weight of its own false pretenses regarding love, trust and the ups and downs of sadomasochistic relationships.

After the teaser opening, we see Lee leaving a mental hospital, returning to her parents' house on the day of her sister's wedding. Lee has presumably been cured of whatever various maladies landed her in the hospital, but shortly begins cutting herself whenever the slightest domestic squabble arises. Spying an ad in the newspaper, she applies for a secretarial position at the office of eccentric, anal-retentive lawyer E. Edward Gray (well-played by James Spader, who's made a career pursuing edgier sexual fare -- Crash, sex, lies and videotape, Speaking of Sex). Lee's high score in a typing class wins her the position -- despite her never having held a job before -- and soon she's bending over backwards to please the perpetually dissatisfied Gray.

Initially, Lee's job proves to be just the confidence builder she needs. Gray cruelly exploits Lee's vulnerability, however, building her self-esteem up one day with a well-chosen compliment and tearing it down the next with a scathing criticism of her inadequate job performance. Soon she's putty in the man's hands and he even convinces her to throw away her box full of cutters. Gray is now the only cutter Lee needs. Shortly the relationship moves from the psychological to the physical and Lee's attraction and dependence upon her employer deepens.

The real strength of Shainberg's film lies in its examination of the political struggle between boss and secretary, and it's fun watching the tension (sexual and otherwise) mount between Gray and Lee as the weeks go by. The idea of these two people, each saddled with real issues, trying to break through psychological barriers and make a meaningful connection is ripe with possibilities. Unfortunately, Secretary doesn't adequately exploit its abundant potential. When Gray spanks Lee for the first time, over a trivial typo, there are true sparks between the two. As matters escalate and the master/slave dynamic becomes more defined, with each party looking forward to their dominate/submissive roles, Secretary soars -- moving beyond a merely campy and obvious metaphor for workplace relations into a fascinating dance between two individuals curious to see just how far the other is willing to go in an increasingly aggressive game of cat and mouse.

Once Secretary returns to the opening shot, bondage bar and all, the tone changes dramatically. Gray blinks and fires Lee, disgusted with himself for allowing things to go too far, and Lee tearfully departs, feeling used and callously discarded. Where Shainberg goes from this mini-climax proves Secretary's downfall: Lee's subsequent actions border on parody, and a smug happy ending comes across as a shock-value contrivance as opposed to a true resolution. Of course the later post-firing episodes might all be an elaborate delusional dream of Lee's, now permanently institutionalized, but Secretary never tips its hand that this is the case.

The main problem with Secretary is that it's set up as a psychological examination of how much control people are willing to give up, but is in reality a saccharine sweet love story. For a love story to work, however, we have to feel as if we know the characters, forge an emotional connection with them, and in this regard Secretary merely skirts along the surface. Thanks to committed, genuinely affecting work by Gyllenhaal, we have a definite handle on the clingy neediness of Lee (weak father figure, mother who suffocated any chance of burgeoning self-confidence), but Gray's character is (intentionally, one presumes) a blank slate (that Gray may have been the submissive one in an earlier relationship is hinted at but never convincingly shown). This works fine in the earlier domination scenes, but it falters when there's no way to reconcile his amorous affections for the woman he's spent the entire movie degrading. If degrading bondage shenanigans are Gray's way of weeding out the contenders from the pretenders when it comes to matrimonial devotion, fine, but Secretary needs more evidence and justification for the methods behind such madness to appear earlier in the film.

Other problems involve the lack of development given Lee's cardboard dysfunctional family (overprotective mother, alcoholic father and dishrag fiancé) in proportion to the amount of screen time they're actually afforded. As it stands, the family is merely a device to justify how messed up Lee is, but little more. And that's simply too artificial, given the blissful state of contentment Lee appears to have reached by the film's conclusion. If Secretary's meant to be nothing more than a black comedy, where underdeveloped characters are mere caricatures, the norm, fine, but there's not nearly enough comedy to outweigh the earlier self-serious tone the film takes.

Secretary heads down a dark, dangerous and fascinating path at the outset, but settles for happy trails with its too pat conclusion, and the irreconcilable differences between these two divergent routes severely mars an otherwise accomplished and engaging effort.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterpiece
 4.0-4.9: Exceptional

 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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