(R) 3 1/2 stars Back in the 1960s, Doris Day co-starred in a series of frothy romances with chiseled he-men like Rock Hudson and Rod Taylor. Most of the movies adhered to a formula - Day and her leading man could not stand each other, but while working together on a job or project, understanding, and eventually romance, would blossom. After a series of entertaining spats, of course.
Secretary follows a similar path, except for the S&M and B&D. Don"t expect the grimness those letters imply. While it presents real emotional pain that is, at times, difficult to watch, the film uses humor and a light touch as it methodically chronicles the evolution of a curious relationship. It also affords Maggie Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko) a breakthrough role that will likely make her a star. Adapted (with quite a bit of leeway, I"m told) from a short story by Mary Gaitskill, the movie follows Lee Holloway (Gyllenhaal), a pallid, socially stunted young woman fresh from a stay at a mental hospital, back at home with her drunkard father (Stephen McHattie) and perky-at-all-costs mother (Lesley Ann Warren). Lee is supposed to find a job and enter the adult world, having supposedly conquered her habit of cutting herself. Note: As far as this cutting business goes, the only thing I know about it is that whenever a show like Seventh Heaven advertises a "special episode that needs to be seen by parents," the subject usually turns out to be some teen-age girl hacking on herself. Lee"s favorite implement for self-mutilation is a pretty ballerina figure - she uses the (sharpened) pointed toe on the extended leg for the self-mutilation. She also keeps antiseptics nearby to tidy up afterwards. I don"t pretend to understand. Eventually, Lee secures a job with lawyer E. Edward Grey (James Spader - now, who would have guessed he would turn up in a movie like this?), answering the phone and typing letters on an old, pre-computer machine. Grey, as should come as no surprise, is a peculiar character, fidgeting and grooming himself while making sure his precious red markers are properly aligned in his desk drawer. Lee takes to the job, embracing the monotony like a widow hugging her first born. Meanwhile, E. Edward studies her and waits for his moment. Finally, he takes one of her letters, uses one of his red markers to circle a typing error and calls her into his office. Ordered to place the letter on his desk, bend over and read it aloud, Lee learns of E. Edwards" game when he gives her a spanking. The corporal punishment turns Lee on - a fact she unsuccessfully tries to explain to her dullard boyfriend (Jeremy Davies, continuing what looks to be a career path of playing mumbling schnooks). The world opens up for her; she begins to dress more provocatively and enjoy erotic daydreams, while losing interest in whittling on herself. She ups the ante, deliberately making mistakes so that Grey will "correct" her, but her now-obvious affection for her employer is too much for the man and he cuts off the discipline. Lee, however, has no intention of giving up her new life, and so the games begin in earnest. That Secretary works is a tribute to the acting ability and screen presence of Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader, and to the directorial skills of Steven Shainberg. Spader could easily have played his role on autopilot, drawing from his vast array of bizarre characters, but he focuses full attention on E. Edward and manages to humanize him. As for Gyllenhaal, she inhabits Lee, blending the woman"s sadness and overwhelming sense of need with a fiery band of strength. She is dynamic and, in her hands, Lee becomes a hero. And if "hero" sounds like an odd word to use given the proclivities of Lee and E. Edward, bear in mind that, in the able hands of Shainberg, the film is not simply an S&M or B&D sideshow. Sex is communication (at least if my ninth grade biology teacher was correct) and Secretary is about the negotiations of sex, of relationships. Even as their behaviors might make some of us squirm, the bottom line is that we are watching two people trying to work out a long-term relationship utilizing some unique methods to express their love. Secretary may seem too rudimentary at times, but the characters, and their needs, stick with you long after the closing credits roll.