Friday, January 10, 2003

Secretary / *1/2 (2002)

The experience of watching "Secretary" is perhaps more amusing than anything actually contained in the movie itself. What begins as an innocent exhibit of blank but intrigued stares quickly and effortlessly becomes a sea of twisted faces, confused eyes and disjointed smiles, exemplified by a crowd of film observers who no doubt feel like they've walked into some kind of sexual twilight zone without actually being told so. Just a quick glance at any person during the halfway point of the picture is enough to endure the on-screen torture, although just barely. And by the time its all over, the only thing that remains even remotely interesting in our minds is the fact that people can make their faces look so mutated.

I saw "Secretary" not with a press crowd, but rather with a typical audience at the local art house movie theater (although the thought of the movie appearing in anywhere near the word "art" is absurd). I wasn't sure whether the warped expressions meant they loved or hated the result, but it was one of the few scarce occasions in which I was glad not to be part of a group that thrived on immediate analyzing, because the very thought of talking about this shapeless pile of crap beyond saying how bad it is would be a total waste of time. This is not the kind of movie you take a date to see. This isn't even the kind of movie that you would allow a convicted criminal to observe.

The movie opens with the introduction of Lee Holloway, an eccentric young woman played somewhat nicely by Maggie Gyllenhaal. In the first scenes, Lee is picked up by her parents after finishing treatment at a psych ward and is immediately whisked off to participate in her older sister's wedding, the very root of her mental problem remaining hidden until she excuses herself upstairs following an argument between father and mother that night. The redheaded woman, not quite as mature as we expect her to be, tends to take razor blades to her skin when family pressure becomes too much for her to handle; physical pain, in cases like these, is the only outlet for any emotional stress.

Later, after her overly-cautious mother Joan (Lesley Ann Warren) locks all the knives in the house away, Lee decides to answer an ad for a secretary position, arriving the next day at a small law firm in which the only inside activity is the former secretary tearfully packing up her belongings and exiting the building. Mr. Grey (James Spader), her shy and equally-eccentric employer, asks few questions in his slow and near-despondent interview with the intrigued girl, but he eventually stresses the notion that she may be overqualified for the position. "This job will be very boring for you," he indicates. "I like boring," she instantly retorts. And needles to say, she gets the position.

Soon after her hire, Lee discovers there may be more to her boss than meets the eye. His starts burrowing her with heaps of duties, but she refuses to challenge the workload for fear of failing at something. Later, when Mr. Grey conveniently starts spying on his secretary and noticing her skin cuts, he convinces her to stop the self-torment but simply piles the stress load on her more than before. She begins to lose patience and starts making errors in her work, and her boss awkwardly responds to by kneeling her across a desk and beating the back of her ass while she reads aloud her mistakes. The catch? The woman actually likes the punishment, and intentionally makes more errors for more spanking! And thus the movie becomes this long and tedious exercise of power struggles and personal revelations in which roles are challenged, masochism takes center stage, and hidden sexual energies begin to consume the workplace.

It would be nice to say that "Secretary" is the most sick and twisted film of 2002, but that would be an unfair judgment for "The Rules of Attraction," which still holds that title high and proud. But the similarities do, in fact, end there; while the latter film has a great knowledge of its characters and situations, this is a film that simply exists for the thrill of being distorted and nothing else. If that isn't a specific enough judgment for the reader of this review, I advise them to seek out someone who actually has the balls to elaborate on all the sick gimmicks, repulsive story arcs and tasteless plot twists the movie dares to throw at its unsuspecting audience.

Bad taste does not automatically mean a negative for any movie, but "Secretary" operates on a mindset devoid of any plausibility or satisfaction. It's cold, overly-calculated, tasteless and meaningless on nearly every level possible. Even the movie's actors—particularly Spader—refuse to emerge beyond just reciting a few lines of dialogue and acting on the characters' twisted impulses. Gyllenhaal as a shred sense of identify in the movie's first half, at least, but that's where it ends. In fact, when Grey takes the character over and makes her a slave to his every pathetic need, it's as if the script depletes her of all individuality beyond being aroused by his strict discipline. The movie has an agenda all right, but it's too busy playing hopscotch with itself to identify the purpose to its viewers.

Is Gyllenhaal the only virtue here? Amazingly, no. The movie's first half hour is a subtle but very solid patch of realistic character studying, believe it or not, and I liked most of what the screenplay was tossing at me in regards to Lee's somewhat disturbing family background. But when Mr. Grey enters the picture, everything turns black, and "Secretary" becomes less about its people and entirely about external affliction. I suppose the picture would work for moviegoers if they were masochists themselves, but somehow I think even that could be left up to speculation.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Cast & Crew info:
James Spader: Mr. Grey
Maggie Gyllenhaal: Lee Holloway
Jeremy Davies: Peter
Lesley Ann Warren: Joan Holloway
Stephen McHattie: Burt Holloway

Produced by Jamie Beardsley, Andrew Fierberg, Amy Hobby, Joel Posner, P.J. Posner, Michael Roban and Steven Shainberg; Directed by Steven Shainberg; Screenwritten by Erin Cressida Wilson

Drama (US); Rated R for strong sexuality, some nudity, depiction of behavioral disorders, and language; Running Time - 104 Minutes

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