Secretary, Starring James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhall, Directed by Steven Shainberg, 2002
Secretary is the true story of how Maggie Gyllenhall abased herself in order to become more famous.
The movie is nothing more than the old hackneyed plot of girl meets boy, girl falls in love with boy, girl loses boy, girl gets boy back—gaudied up with some cheeky oh-so-naughty S&M. But Gyllenhall works ever so hard to be game for whatever comes up in the movie, always with her eyes on the bigger and better prize. She’ll let you spank her, she’ll perform pointless full-frontal nudity, she’ll goggle open mouthedly!
Her career previous to this picture consists of either bit parts in bigger films or near starring roles in smaller films, but with Secretary’s “controversial” nature plum roles in Mona Lisa Smile and a number of upcoming films have fallen into her lap. She and her brother seem to have marketed themselves rather well to burst upon the scene in indie films guaranteed to attract attention. There’s something peculiarly artificial about their twin rise to prominence, something more hype than buzz. Of the two actors, I’d rather Jake stayed and Maggie went, but that’s neither here nor there.
Gyllenhall (Maggie) seems a bit forced at times, her face registering what appears to me to be the slow memory of what her line is supposed to be. Her character Lee Holloway comes across as passive, vapid, and dull, only coming to life being hurt. The film follows her as she returns from a mental hospital to her parents’ home where her dad is drunk and abusive, her mother a punching bag who takes it, her sister a chipper all-American blonde and life is manicured lawns and lounging by the pool. Eventually, she decides to get a job as E. Edward Grey’s (James Spader) secretary. A relationship develops based on Lee’s masochism and Grey’s sadism. This is the film’s shocker. We are treated to scenes of Lee crawling in memos, being rigged up with a crossbar with shackles, being fitted with a saddle and a carrot for her mouth, etc. etc.
When you take out these elements, there isn’t much to their relationship at all. In fact, that’s about all their relationship is in the beginning. Yes, it proves to be therapeutic for Lee (who was in the mental hospital for cutting herself), and yes, ultimately love wins out in the end. But who cares? We don’t learn enough about the characters themselves for any of it to matter. What could I tell you about Lee after watching this movie? Only marginally more than I could tell you about her boss. We are treated to two people who are into kinky stuff and this is the basis for their relationship. Ho hum.
James Spader phones in one of his patented emotionless performances (he seems to have the most chiseled philtrum I’ve ever seen—that’s how dull this role was, I was studying his physiognomy). For one brief second I had a flashback and believed I was watching Crash all over again. In his varied career, Spader seems to have a certain attraction to doing sexually unusual roles. One wonders if this is more typecasting or by choice. The same can be said for Jeremy Davies, star of the brilliant Spanking the Monkey, who shows up in this film as Peter, an irrelevant side plot romance. Playing a somewhat dorky old friend from high school, one who, in his father’s words, has “a good paying job at J.C.Penneys,” Davies appears to demonstrate Lee’s inability to get on in real life with normal people. Never mind that Peter is a one-dimensional strawman wheeled out only to be rejected, thus demonstrating that the course of true love never did run smooth.
The final half-hour of the movie veers into vaguely fairy-tale style phony baloney. Lee shows up at Grey’s office after he’s fired her, attired in a wedding dress provided by Peter’s mother (you see, Lee was so hopelessly sad she accepted Peter’s proposal down in the J.C.Penney break room). They argue about the romance, then he commands her to sit at his desk with both her hands on his desk and both her feet on the floor until he comes back. Then he leaves. For three days. The media hear about the story calling it a hunger strike, various people show up to talk to Lee, a candlelight vigil sets up in the office parking lot, all in all, a complete divorce from whatever tenuous reality the film had takes place. Grey reads a quote from Lee in the local paper in which she explains her selfless love for him and voila, he realizes how much he actually loves her, deep down inside. See, girls, it’s simple—just totally abnegate yourself and the man will be yours. Even if you have to sit in a puddle of your own pee, it’s worth it. You can change him.
All of this makes for a film that’s a bit tiresome when it wants to shock us and a bit of a forgettable exercise in romance, S&M, and acting. Angelo Badalamenti, composer for David Lynch, turns up doing the soundtrack, filling out the bill of “oddballs” who do “oddball” pictures. What I can say that was pleasurable about the film were two things: Cinematographer Steven Fierberg provides various cinematic elements that were quite enjoyable, and Maggie Gyllenhall has a good-looking set of boobs. If either of those things interests you, watch this movie, or at least fast forward to the last ten minutes.