Hi 83 / Lo 62
|Volume 68, Issue 19,
Friday, September 20, 2002
Arts & Entertainment
Quirky 'Secretary' doesn't entertain
By Chris Brunt
There are movies that exist so exclusively on the fringes of our collective interest that most never knew they were there at all. Sometimes, this is unfortunate.
In the case of Secretary, Steven Shainberg's new film, it is certainly a blessing.
This is not a poorly constructed film. It's shot primarily (and capably) as an art film. The acting is commendable, the production is slick and the editing lacks any noticeable flaws.
It's just rather boring, which is quite a statement to make, considering its plot revolves around sadomasochism. This may be presumptuous or uncouth, but I offer that "boring" is not a typical characteristic of any cinematic feature driven by attractive women who yearn for spankings.
Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Lee Holloway, an introverted young woman just released from a psychiatric clinic. The first scene after she leaves the ward is her sister's wedding, basically a vehicle for showcasing the multiple layers of dysfunction in her family (drunk father, battered mother, etc.). Strangely, none of this is presented with a serious tone: your first clue that the makers of this film are twisted.
Shainberg wastes no time in raising the audience's hair. No more than 10 minutes into the film, we see Lee preparing to mutilate herself — apparently, it's the old habit that got her institutionalized in the first place.
She manages to compose herself, however, and eventually decides to seek work. She soon finds a lawyer in need of a secretary and proceeds glowing, yet still timid, to the interview. The best sight gag in the film is the permanent wooden "Secretary Wanted" sign containing light bulbs to inform of its current status.
When Lee arrives, the bulbs are lit up, and we see a secretary gathering her things in tears. Lee then begins her long, torrid relationship with the lawyer, Mr. E. Edward Grey (played masterfully by James Spader). She, of course, accepts the tedious job enthusiastically, and for nearly the remainder of the movie, Shainberg's camera doesn't leave the office. There's a subplot with Lee's unbearable suitor, but it's inconsequential.
The center of this film is the S&M interplay between the twisted lawyer and the fantastically spineless heroine. It's supposed to be funny. The height of their debauchery, a sequence where scenes of absurd deviance are spliced rapidly, is very comical just for its onslaught of ridiculousness. But it's very hard to care what happens to Lee over the course of two hours.
Her metamorphosis is quite drastic, but it takes so much time. Mr. Grey is static throughout, until the final 20 minutes — and his previous personality, while funny, was simply too quirky and bizarre to induce any emotion from the viewer.
The love story, albeit, a bizarre one, is crammed into the last portion of the film and resolves in a disappointingly pat fashion. It takes so long to gather its momentum that when it finally climaxes the viewer is long since deflated.
Much of this film looks a little like Todd Solondz's style, with artificial lighting and hyperbolically odd characters — a freak show. You will leave the theater having laughed, but not enough.
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