Reviewed By Erik Childress
Posted 09/20/02 14:09:25

"Is Your Love Cruisin' For A Bruisin'?"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

How many films can you recall where James Spader played a sex fiend of some sort? Sex, Lies and Videotape and Crash are two easy ones and you can debate the merits of his roles in 2 Days in the Valley and White Palace. Hes had sex and committed affairs of some sort in nearly half of his films in the kind of parts not necessarily accustomed to typecasting. Therefore one has to believe that Spader seeks out these parts. After all, even simulated sex with a good-looking actress is cheaper than an evening at the strip clubs, plus hes actually doing his job AND getting paid for it. More power to him, I say, as thats part of what his latest project, Secretary, is all about.

Maggie Gyllenhaal (sister of Jake) plays Lee Holloway, fresh out of the mental institution for her proclivity towards self-mutilation. With an over-protective mother (Lesley Ann Warren) and an alcoholic father (Stephen McHattie), Lee has always needed an outlet to let her pain escape. Since shes doing her best to keep her injury kit underneath her bed, she needs something new to keep herself occupied. She comes across a want ad and applies to become the secretary of lawyer E. Edward Grey (Spader).

Grey is an oddity himself. At first glance its hard to imagine that the communication skills he possesses are suitable for a man in his position. Lee gets the position and becomes very efficient, save for the occasional typo that Edward gloriously awaits with his red markers and the chance to berate Lee voluminously. As the yelling overcomes her Lee is prepared to go back to the razor and iodine when Edward sits her down for a heartfelt intervention telling her that she will never do that again. He wont allow it. This touching scene would seemingly be the beginning of a beautiful friendship, but only opens the gateway to a pseudosexual relationship where Lee is submissive to every wanton command of Mr. Grey.

Any write-up you are likely to come across about Secretary will probably gravitate towards the letters S and M. Certainly this is not a film for everyone, but in regards to those two letters were not talking candlewax on the nipples or witchcraft or anything like that. Theres far more to notice than the bizarre photography, instruments of bondage and Spader going on severe spanking fits. In this office, yes, pain equals pleasure and, no, the quirks of two dysfunctional people may not amount to a hill of beans, but this is THEIR hill and these are THEIR beans.

As we all search for relationship compatibility, who in this world is to say that whats right for them is right for everyone else. Slapdash activists for female empowerment may frown upon Lees obedience and need for Edwards unwavering attention, but if it makes her happy then the first stone need never be thrown. The way Lee treats her sweetenly nave kind-of boyfriend (Jeremy Davies) may not find her winning over new fans, and I felt his final reaction was a bit extreme and unrealistic, but some people want the ol ball-and-chain and then there are those who just want the Ball and Chain.

While most of the office antics are handled most discreetly, Secretary is still a film that will make the more demure homosapiens wince, notably when it comes to self-touching and the overzealous results of one encounter that would have been more appropriate in the laundromat scene. Gyllenhaal and Spader play well off (and with) each other as two characters who seem only to exist for one another. As they make crucial decisions in their lives about whether what theyre experiencing is some twisted form of love, we realize their transitions from one phase into the next isnt all that different than the countless others weve seen on screen nor those weve experienced in our own life. Secretary is a strange film, but nevertheless an intriguing one that finds Spader continuing to commit to characters that he finds the perfect fit, the same as Lee Holloway.

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