Not as bad as she thinks she is

Movie Review

October 18, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Secretary, the story of a masochistic secretary (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who discovers true love only when her lawyer-boss (James Spader) spanks her, is the refined arthouse equivalent of Hollywood low comedies that win laughs and critical praise for diving into far-out areas like incest and bestiality. The advance raves for Secretary are tantamount to dares: Love this movie, they command us, or be revealed as a priss or a coward. They're like the kudos for all those terrible Farrelly Brothers movies, like Me, Myself and Irene and Say It Isn't So, that say: Applaud this film or be dubbed a snob or a sourpuss.

What's hilarious about the build-up is that Secretary proves to be the softest, most middle-of-the-road movie that could have been made about this subject. Director Steven Shainberg has taken Mary Gaitskill's profoundly upsetting short story of the same name (from her collection Bad Behavior) and turned it into a cushy kind of fairy tale. It's surefire daydream fodder for any gal who's ever thought, "Some day my prince will come, with a red felt pen and a paddle."

It won a special jury prize at Sundance for originality, but how unique or audacious is this movie? Shainberg starts his picture with the relationship-film equivalent of an action stunt - his heroine trying to do her office work in a yoke and collar - then flashes back to six months earlier, when a psychiatric institution released her on her sister's wedding day.

You have to be blind and deaf not to know exactly where this film is headed. Gyllenhaal plays a girl who's lived a life of quiet - no, silent - desperation, except for when she takes out her self-mutilation kit and inflicts cuts deep enough to hurt but small enough to be hidden with Band-Aids. Her idea of a tea party is to burn herself with the pot.

But she does have enough survival sense to know her best chance to go straight is to emerge from under the thumbs of her battling parents (Lesley Ann Warren and Stephen McHattie). She completes a typing class and wins a job at the one-man firm of an eccentric attorney (James Spader): You can tell he's quirky right away because he forces her to do his letters on an IBM Selectric. If he entered the age of computer spell-checks, there'd be less opportunity for him to berate his secretaries and spank them.

Shainberg and his co-adapter, Erin Cressida Wilson, have taken their cue from the way Gaitskill's secretary dreams of sharing "a tremendous sense of release and goodwill" with her boss. The movie builds inexorably to the point where they can revel in their love-and-lifestyle choice and announce it to the world.

Although the filmmakers retain several of Gaitskill's key lines and ideas, they twist them into chocolate pretzels. They deliberately avoid her etching of claustrophobic middle-class life in a depressing suburb. This movie is languorous where Gaitskill is quick and spare, and it has a stylized art-circus atmosphere, down to the lawyer's clownish, illuminated help-wanted sign. The whole point is for us to accept the relatively low-key domination games these people play as legitimate love play. If you stipulate that at the outset, there's no tension to this experience at all.

What gives the picture an iota of vitality is the gusto of the lead performers. Gyllenhaal is as juicy as Spader is brittle. When the secretary's skin bruises, her sap rises, and Gyllenhaal conveys the full measure of each body quake with uproarious goggle-eyed expressions. Spader exploits his gifts for total blankness (to keep her guessing at his feelings) and covert observation (to get us laughing at his naughtiness) better than ever before.

But they do nothing that wouldn't be more amusing if they were plopped down as the kinky supporting characters in a spy movie. In Secretary, the choreography of their moves and counter-moves - the man's arousals and retreats, the woman's giddy acceptance and heightened demands - is as subtle as a bug dropped on a sheet.

Secretary

Starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader

Directed by Steven Shainberg

Released by Lions Gate

Rated R

Time 104 minutes

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