by Chris Parry
Secretary is a movie that very nearly loses the audience. It really doesn't show you much that is different or superior or worth your time, and you'll likely not really like anyone within it... at least, initially. But while a movie about weirdo office affairs starring James Spader as the freak of freaks might not exactly seem like virgin ground, Secretary manages a stunt that very few movies would dare even try - it gives you the worst of humanity and leaves you loving those depicted. How the filmmakers managed this, I really couldn't tell you. But they managed it.Lee (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is basically a nutbar. She's been at the hospital resting up since her nervous breakdown, only when she's released it isn't long before we realize that she's the least crazy one in her family. Her mother is nothing short of nuts, her dad is an alcoholic in denial (with a mean left hook), and her boyfriend is another recovering mental midget. Is it any wonder that Lee has taken to self-mutilation as a means of bringing focus to her world?
"Whatever floats your boat, someone somewhere is floating something similar."
But then she goes out to apply for a job. As she enters the law offices of E. Edward Grey, the previous secretary scoots past, tears streaming, with a box of her possessions in hand. Lee, inexperienced in the ways of the working world, doesn't give this a second thought, applies for the job and, though the boss (Spader) is definitely odd, becomes the new legal secretary.
But Grey is a tough taskmaster. In fact, he's downright bizarro. Drifting between leering lust and abusive yelling, it seems that everything Lee does is wrong, and as long as she takes the blame passively, the abuse just gets stronger. But when she stands up for herself, suddenly the bossman grows interested. An odd passion starts to show itself between the two, though they're both so messed up that they'd be hard pressed to successfully make toast together, let alone form a satisfying relationship.
But the catch here is the mood. Quite simply, there isn't a person in this fil that you don't dislike. Even despise. Some you might even hate. But there's nobody in this cast that you could love. Is there...?
Gylenhaal's Lee is a hopeless case, still growing up and patently unsure of society's rules of polite society. When her boss literally spanks her for making a typo, she doesn't run out and file a lawsuit, she grabs the desk and gets into it. Why? Because she's messed up, and because as crazy as her boss is, he's also, deep down, in love with her. And she knows it. And if the only attention she can get is the occasional butt-slap, then so be it.
Gyllenhaal, like her brother Jake has been so often of late, is a revelation. She's goofy, sexual, funny, poignant, and most of all human. Spader, laden with habits that just cry out for an audience to hate him, manages to match her step-for-step, with the two of them being the best thing in this film by a long way, even as the audience is scratching their heads and feeling dirty for watching them.
But as much as S&M plays a big part in Secretary, the flick is far from tacky. There's little nudity, little violence, the characters are well rounded, and there's even a little Coen Brothers touch of the absurd about things.
As good as it gets, though, it gets far better. See, you will hate the characters in Secretary. Lee is a total bumblefuck, while Spader is certifiable. He likes to mistreat his secretaries, and she likes to mistreat herself....
But the beauty of proceedings is that even though you want to be outraged and insulted and disappointed about how these two keep running to the knife, you can't. Spader is too good. Gyllenhaal is too good. The situations, while absurd, are too well written. And ultimately, even though the first act of this film is all about setting up horrid people to be watched by a camera and rejected by the audience, the mix of great acting, great writing and great directing means we eventually swing 360 degrees and actually come to like these people.
Which is kind of like growing to like the Unabomber. It's unsettling.
A great feature film with enough laughs, weirdness, fine performances and filmmaking flair to earn it a place on most critics' top ten of the year lists. Secretary earns this place because it's risque and edgy, but that's not the genius of the film, nor its crowning acheivement. Put simply, Secretary is an uplifting enigma. It throws everything it has at you, then finds a whole lot more to throw when you least expect it. Secretary teases you, it pokes you, it entertains you, disgusts you. All at the same time.It won't be for everyone, and if you don't stay to the end, you won't get the beginning. So be forewarened, if Secretary's on your list of movies-to-rent, choose your companions for the evening well and be prepared to be confused for a while. You'll enjoy it.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=5922&reviewer=1
originally posted: 08/19/03 21:23:14