More in-depth film festival coverage than any other website!
Home Reviews  Articles  Release Dates Coming Soon  DVD  Top 20s Criticwatch  Search
Public Forums  Festival Coverage  Contests About 

Overall Rating

Awesome: 36.19%
Worth A Look43.81%
Average: 7.62%
Pretty Bad: 7.62%
Total Crap: 4.76%

7 reviews, 63 user ratings

[] Buy posters from this movie
by Chris Parry

"Whatever floats your boat, someone somewhere is floating something similar."
4 stars

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?

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....

Perfect match.

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
originally posted: 08/19/03 21:23:14
[printer] printer-friendly format  
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2002 Sundance Film Festival. For more in the 2002 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

4/25/18 Steve Great movie, clueless critic 5 stars
4/23/17 steve weirdly likable, but only occasionally sexy 4 stars
1/12/14 Monday Morning Why haven't I heard about this film before now? Somebody's gonna get spanked! 4 stars
2/13/09 Monique This film is on my top ten list Spader and Gyllenhaal are great! 5 stars
9/21/08 Annie G I would hesitate to recommend to anyone not open-minded, but we enjoyed it. 4 stars
7/29/08 Paula Love this film. Spader and Gyllenhaal are fabulous. 5 stars
6/09/08 ardis Isolation, terminal vulnerability, and the terror of it--in pursuit of passion & intimacy. 5 stars
3/05/08 ladavies Naughty film, felt like locking the door, enjoyed it! 4 stars
8/05/07 ravenmad l love this movie: dark, campy, lottsa layers and fun! 5 stars
3/26/07 Dark Enchantress loved this movie! RAWR! 5 stars
3/18/07 Lynn James Spader can spank my ass ANYTIME!!!!!!!!! 5 stars
1/14/07 Jim Spader proves he can make any character sympathetic; Gyllenhaal is amazing 4 stars
5/31/06 barbara cowell A movie that was so true in its depiction of Lee's problem that it hurt. 5 stars
5/04/06 laura I I loved it...doesn't represent S&M as much as remind viewers of the redeeming power of love 5 stars
12/19/05 tatum Too wrapped up in its own self importance 1 stars
10/30/05 Shenny S. Great untraditional love story! 5 stars
7/04/05 Elena Vardon this movie was startlingly deep 5 stars
5/28/05 Gary Terrible script... from commentary, director too into himself, doesn't know what's importan 1 stars
1/17/05 Jeff Anderson WOW! This is one awesome film about S&M love. J.S. and M.G. are both simply astonishing. 5 stars
9/22/04 Benjamin Spicher Romantic, sexy, great! 5 stars
8/28/04 Chris Smith I loved it <g> - I don't think it was so much about sex but two kin souls no matter how far 5 stars
6/29/04 jcjs funny, clever, sexy, outrageous, thoughful, insightful, acrhetyical jazz 5 stars
6/02/04 Aqua Boogie I think Secretary is in the top 10 list of the best movies ever made. I loved it!!!!! 5 stars
5/15/04 The More You Know Takes some time to get warmed up to the idea, but then the action gets hot, in a weird way. 4 stars
5/11/04 J.Peckerfoot Didn't expect to enjoy this and i should be spanked for it.Great stuff. 5 stars
4/11/04 British Lover Engaging, quirky, Spader was electric! ;) 5 stars
3/23/04 The Talking Elbow Most fucked up love movie i've ever seen, and yet it was sweet and romantic at the end. 5 stars
3/15/04 Ingo Subtle and caring, with lovable characters - a gem. 5 stars
1/01/04 Phil M. Aficionado Even Gyllenhaal's great job is unable to rescue this from irrelevancy and silliness. Yuk. 2 stars
12/19/03 the Grinch Vunderbar. Gyllenhaal is great, Spader is in Nick Cage-Vampire's Kiss form 4 stars
12/12/03 Will It was touching 5 stars
11/14/03 Caiphn Terrible. Ridiculous writing and unintentionally funny. 1 stars
10/17/03 Jinnvisible Charming film could be tittled `The Tao of Bondage`...............................some`Awe 5 stars
10/15/03 matt Beautifully twisted love story that has the courage of its convictions. Just great. 5 stars
10/06/03 sneaker Hey, the first s/m romantic comedy... 4 stars
8/20/03 Graham So because someone's into S&M, they're akin to the Unabomber? Nice. 5 stars
6/21/03 Matt Parsons Dark, Weird, funny and sexy... Nice :-) 5 stars
6/14/03 Colin Selby WELL THE POSTER WAS OK. 2 stars
6/10/03 Jimmy Interesting premise completely falls apart 1 stars
6/09/03 Jack Sommersby A true original. Spader and Gyllenhaal are outstanding. 4 stars
6/03/03 John Bale Bonfire of the Sanities. Brilliant acting saves dark erotic sexcapade of nutbags 4 stars
5/23/03 kelli sexy as hell. a little campy, but delightfully twisted 5 stars
5/19/03 Andrew Carden Solid Debut For Gyllenhall, but Mediocre & Overdone Film. 3 stars
5/11/03 Danny Left me wowed after watching... 4 stars
4/14/03 Mark A- 4 stars
4/04/03 Ray True love.........yes.....True love 5 stars
3/31/03 Dan Navarro The most original movie of the year 5 stars
2/17/03 Roy Gyllenhaal = Goddess! 5 stars
12/25/02 davebo spank me silly, i loved this movie! 5 stars
12/02/02 marzio Nice movie, clever director, black humour, great James Spader 4 stars
11/19/02 poetchuck Spader = Strange 3 stars
11/09/02 AdieAngel One of the best love stories I've ever seen. 5 stars
11/06/02 kiarna fairy tale love story that keeps true to its own dark heart 5 stars
10/22/02 RedWitch A wonderfully positive look at D/s and how two individuals grow and find strength from each 5 stars
10/15/02 Frankie Gaard Sublime and still hot 5 stars
10/10/02 Lioness This movie FINALY showed a more real to life D/s relationship-the subtle looks, the voice 5 stars
10/09/02 ira great movie, loved it 5 stars
9/25/02 Triv James Spader is AWSOME 4 stars
9/20/02 Lithepanther Bizarre yet conventional. :Honest yet idealistic. 4 stars
9/20/02 Pan Onca Loved it... At last, a movie that doesn't trash BDSM. Good ofr nillas and fun for kinkfolk 5 stars
9/10/02 Leslie Marks Loved it - original, funny and best of all not judgmental 5 stars
Note: Duplicate, 'planted,' or other obviously improper comments
will be deleted at our discretion. So don't bother posting 'em. Thanks!
Your Name:
Your Comments:
Your Location: (state/province/country)
Your Rating:

Discuss this movie in our forum

  20-Sep-2002 (R)



Home Reviews  Articles  Release Dates Coming Soon  DVD  Top 20s Criticwatch  Search
Public Forums  Festival Coverage  Contests About Australia's Largest Movie Review Database.
Privacy Policy | HBS Inc. | |   

All data and site design copyright 1997-2017, HBS Entertainment, Inc.
Search for
reviews features movie title writer/director/cast