Being a secretary might be “very dull work”, but does that justify how very dull a movie “Secretary” is? Director Steven Schainberg’s title character does have her hardly dull charms and kinks, but the film she’s stuck in just runs, no, limps in circles. So you’ve got this big bad lawyer who’s very demanding of his secretary, so much that after she’s made too many typos one day, he makes her bend over his desk and spanks her, and she likes it! Thus begin a really naughty relationship…
That’s a pretty intriguing, politically incorrect premise there, how a boss sexually harasses a female employee only to find out that she actually enjoys his indiscretions. Unfortunately, Schainberg doesn’t know where to go with this, so he just stretches every scene long past there’s any interest left in them. There’s maybe 25 minutes of solid, colorful material in “Secretary”, but it’s lost in 80 more minutes of unnecessary voice-over, boring digressions and a third act “waiting game” that just goes on and on only to lead to a contrived resolution.
Another major problem is the shifting tone. “Secretary” sometimes plays like a quirky sex comedy, all fun and giggles, but then there’s all this twisted dramatic baggage that throws the whole thing out of balance. Lee the secretary is a deeply disturbed woman who experienced a scarring childhood under an alcoholic father, a mental breakdown that led to a stay in a mental institution and an extended history of cutting herself. I think the film argues that after all that, the S&M games with her boss is just what she needs, but it’s hard not to feel that she’s only escaping a painful past for a painful future, even if it’s by choice this time.
The one thing that’s consistently involving in “Secretary” is Maggie Gyllenhaal as the secretary. James Spader is effective enough as her boss, but he could play slimy strict yuppies in his sleep. Gyllenhaal, now that’s a discovery! She’s wonderfully charismatic and warm and expressive, and she manages to remain compelling and convincing despite all the bizarre loops the film sends her character through. It’s one of the strongest performances I’ve seen all year, too bad the movie around it is not as inspired as Gyllenhaal is.