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SECRETARY

2002, dir. Steven Shainberg
104 min. Rated R.
Starring: James Spader, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jeremy Davies, Lesley Ann Warren.

Review by Noel Wood
Normally, I'd leave a strange little movie about deviant sexual activities for Terry to review, but he was apparently catatonic after seing this movie and never got around to writing about it. Since, he's been working on some additional excluive MCFTR MP3s, which I will eventually get around to post for your listening enjoyment.

Before I get in to talking about SECRETARY, let's first enlighten our readers with the calling card of one its stars, the one and only James Spader. In his 20+ year career in ciinema, Spader has put together a resume that reads like the Marquis de Sade's. It seems as if you're going to make a movie and need someone to engage in deviant sexual activities, Spader comes running like a trained pup. Here's some of the big ones:

LESS THAN ZERO (1987, Marek Kanievska)
In this Brat-packers-gone-bad urban drama adapted from the Brett Easton Ellis novel, Spader plays Rip, who is a coke dealer and pimp. This was the period where Spader was getting his feet wet in this category.

SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE (1989, Steven Soderbergh)
Here's the quintessential Spader Sexcapade, in which he plays Graham, an old college buddy who wanders back in to the lives of some old friends and subjects them to his weird fantasies that can be pretty well summed up by the film's title.

WHITE PALACE (1990, Luis Mandoki)
Not as deviant as some of his other works, but in this movie Spader plays Max Baron, a widower that enters into a torrid affair with an older woman, played by Susan Sarandon.

BAD INFLUENCE (1990, Curtis Hanson)
Another film in the breakdown-of-the-brat-pack vein, BAD INFLUENCE stars Spader as Michael, who is videotaped in bed with a woman other than his fiancee and starts a creepy homoerotic relationship with Rob Lowe.

DREAMLOVER (1994, Nicholas Kazan)
In this one, Spader's more the victim of the deviant sexual activities than the perpetrator of them, but any mention with Madchen Amick is worth mentioning in my book, especially when she's getting naked in an erotic thriller.

CRASH (1996, David Cronenberg)
Perhaps the most deviant he's ever been. Spader's James Ballard likes to simulate auto accidents and have sex with Deborah Kara Unger. At the same time. Brings new meaning to the term "autoerotic".

TWO DAYS IN THE VALLEY (1996, John Herzfeld)
In this Tarantinoesque piece, Spader plays Lee Woods, a hitman who gets aroused by performing sadistic acts on his victims. Of course, the payoff is that he gets to get it on with Charlize Theron.

This gets us up to speed on the latest Spader Sex Story, this time foraging into the realm of Sadomasochism. Spader plays a lawyer (which is also pretty familiar territory for him) who hires a new secretary named Lee Holloway, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal. Okay, more fairly, this is more her story than his, but she hasn't quite amassed the resume Spader has for this. She ain't exactly moving in the wrong direction though, with stuff like DONNIE DARKO, CECIL B. DEMENTED, and PORNOGRAPHER: A LOVE STORY under her belt.

    

Anyway, Lee was recently released from a mental hospital, going home to her alcoholic father and codependent mother. She still isn't over her masochistic tendencies, and releases her anger and frustration by cutting and burning her thighs. Trying to get a fresh start, she takes a typing class, where she excels, and goes out for a the aformentioned job at a law office. The lawyer, Edward Gray, goes through secretaries so fast that there's a permanent "Secretary Wanted" sign out front that lights up like a No Vacancy sign.

She's shy and meek, and he's very demanding. He berates her for the occasional typographical error, then takes more personal jabs at the way she dresses and carries herself. After one particular fuckup, he calls her in to his office and disciplines her for the error with a hearty spanking. Lee is taken aback at first, but soon finds herself enjoying the experience, and eventually requiring it.

Meanwhile, she's dating a nice boy named Peter (Jeremy Davies, who seems to be amassing quite the resume himself, starring in such films as SPANKING THE MONKEY, INVESTIGATING SEX, and TEKNOLUST) who doesn't quite understand the bizarre fetish that Lee has taken to, nor can he satisfy it. Eventually, he asks Lee to be his bride, and she agrees, but has some reluctances as they approach the day.

Okay, I kinda had an idea of what to expect going in to SECRETARY, but was really kind of blown away at some of the graphic nature of the film. No, I'm not offended or grossed out by any of it, but rather just amazed that they would go through with it, especially based on the tone that was established early on in the film. It starts with a little, and then moves to a lot. There's even a proverbial "money shot" that will likely cause you to tilt your head back and open your eyes like saucers. Meanwhile, there's also some sequences that make light of the relationship that Lee has with Mr. Gray, almost giving a positive vibe to the whole ordeal. This is actually one of the film's plusses. While it doesn't exactly glorify the S & M antics of the stars, it does a bang up job in not looking down upon it either. There's no preachy message to be said, either for or against the activities of the characters. Sometimes, you don't know whether to laugh or just be disturbed at the what's going on on screen. However, sometimes it's pretty obvious that this is an intense moment.

    

This is the second feature released by director Steven Shainberg. Shainberg has made quite a visually appealing film, with a lot of indie roots showing through, yet sensible enough to appeal to a larger audience. The office, where the majority of the film takes place, is grand enough to be a movie in itself. Decorated in hushed earthtones, with decor that would inspire days' worth of conversation, it is truly a marvel. The muted lighting inside plays well against the outdoor shots, which are generally bright daytime scenes. On top of that, the movie flows well. There's not a lot of wasted time. Every scene serves a purpose. These characters are complex, and over the course of the 104 minutes we get to share with them, our opinions of them change several times.

The film's climax comes after Lee runs out on her fiancee Peter, looking for another chapter in her relationship with Mr. Grey. She shows she's willing to go to great lengths to accomplish her goals, even if it means sitting at a desk with her hands and feet planted in place for days on end. With the way the film has been built up to this point, this seems like it's the natural progression of things. It's only after this scene that I found a piece of the movie that left me unsatisfied. The last few minutes of the film seem tacked on, and save for a final shot that really creeped me out and not in a good way, seem to serve no purpose.

SECRETARY was one of those films that created a buzz last year without taking in a large box office. A lot of people were pushing for an Oscar nomination for Gyllenhall, who took home several independent awards for her performance. I was afraid all that hype might leave me bummed about the final product, but I was actually pretty pleased. SECRETARY's probably different than anything you've ever seen before, and for that reason alone, I recommend it.

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All Material Copyright 1998-2006 Movie Criticism for the Retarded.

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