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"Secretary" Review

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Title: Secretary

Starring: Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Spader, Lesley Ann Warren, Jeremy Davies, Patrick Bauchau

Written by: Erin Cressida Wilson, Steven Shainberg

Directed by: Steven Shainberg

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


Review by Stephen Silver

Like this year's other great romantic comedy, "Kissing Jessica Stein," "Secretary" is a comedy about a young woman discovering and adjusting to a new manifestation of her sexuality. But the two films couldn't be more different in tone- while "Stein" was a lesbian version of a straight-arrow, Woody Allen-type romance, "Secretary" would only be typical if David Cronenberg or Larry Clark regularly directed romantic comedies.

More than anything else, "Secretary" represents a sort of coming-out party for a major new talent, actress Maggie Gyllenhaal. Best known until now as the older sister of actor-of-the-moment Jake Gyllenhaal (from "Donnie Darko"), Maggie brings so much to the table in this role that the average viewer will only want to see her in many more movies, as soon as possible.

Gyllenhaal stars as Lee Holloway, a woman in her early 20s who has just been released from a mental institution but nonetheless continues to suffer from a nasty self-mutilation habit. Looking for work, she accepts a job as a secretary in the private-practice office of lawyer E. Edward Grey (James Spader), an obsessive-compulsive fitness fanatic with a permanent "Secretary Wanted" sign outside his office. The fetish/compulsions of the two principals have predictable consequences: they begin a give-and-take in which every time Lee makes a secretarial mistake, she's made to engage in an act of humiliation by her boss. And (surprise!) she likes it. This, like in"Chasing Amy," leads to legitimate obstacles in the face of love, as opposed to the phony ones put forth in most, lesser romantic comedies.

Spader's good, in his usual misunderstood-pervert role (see "Crash," "sex, lies, and videotape," etc.), but the true revelation here is Maggie Gyllenhaal. Jumping from emotion to emotion for the entire length of the film, she communicates more with her eyes and voice affectations than most A-list actresses do in entire performances. Spending many scenes alone (whether talking to herself in the mirror or masturbating), she never sounds creepy or pathetic, only fascinating. Weak and unsure of herself in the first act (complete with 80s wardrobe), her character blossoms considerably and the actress conveys all of those emotions nothing less than perfectly. The third major character is Peter, the loserly "boyfriend" of Lee. Peter is played by Jeremy Davies who, as star of "Spanking the Monkey," is also no stranger to off-kilter sexual indie films, is poignantly, pathetically hilarious here.

Given the unconventional, S&M-oriented nature of the story and its placement into a conventional romantic comedy framework, even the slightest mistake at the acting, screenplay, or directing level would've doomed the whole operation to failure.. But first-time director Shainberg (working from the short story by Mary Gaitskal), handles all of this deftly, staging scenes just right and shooting Gyllenhaal at all the right angles, especially in her "alone" scenes. There's also a noticeable David Lynch vibe to many of the scenes, including the wooden decorating in Spader's office and the understated musical score by veteran Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti.

The third act goes a little far bringing every minor character into the central drama, and the ending is a bit too tidy for my tastes, yet one doesn't leave "Secretary" unsatisfied. Maggie Gyllenhaal has found such a great character and played her so well that we can only hope her inevitable Hollywood starring roles are anywhere near this good.

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