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flick pick | Secretary 2002
Directed by: Steven Shainberg
Written by: Erin Cressida Wilson (screenplay + story adaptation), Mary Gaitskill (story), Steven Shainberg (story adaptation)
Starring: Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Spader, Jeremy Davies

Language: English
Look for it at the video store under: comedy, drama

Watch it when you’re in the mood for something: darkly comic, lovey, whimsical
The critic says: ½/ 5 the rating system explained
Fun factor: /5

Plot synopsis Lee Holloway has just returned home after a stint at a mental hospital, on the perfect sunny day when her perfect blonde sister is getting married in the family’s backyard. But between her alcoholic father, over-protective mother, and overbearingly-adoring (and rather insipid) boyfriend, Lee soon finds herself feeling out-of-control of her own life, and tempted by the same old destructive habits that she’s been addicted to since she was a child. Namely, Lee cuts herself, in little slashes and gashes that pattern her thighs, the scabs and scars hiding just above the hemlines of her frumpy skirts. Still, Lee’s trying to make a happier, healthier life for herself, which is how she comes to find herself answering a help wanted ad for a job as a secretary in the law office of E. Edward Grey. She arrives for an interview in the middle of a downpour – her mom drives her, and insists on waiting outside until Lee’s done – and hands her prospective employer a crumpled piece of paper, her typing certificate. He’s an odd duck, aloof; he proceeds to ask her a series of strictly illegal questions regarding her personal life, which Lee answers, apparently to his satisfaction; he asks her to start work right away. Mr. Grey turns out to be a demanding and rather eccentric boss – he doesn’t believe in computers, for one, which means Lee has to do all her paperwork on an old typewriter – and despite her most earnest efforts, Lee makes the occasional mistake. Since anything short of perfection is unacceptable to the anal-retentive, hyper-controlling Mr. Grey, he yells at her. But when Lee, relieved that someone’s noticing her at last, turns out to actually like the not-so-gentle-rebukes, a strange working – and eventually  personal – relationship forms between the two.

Review “Cute” is probably the last adjective you’d expect to apply to a movie in which the heroine likes to cut herself, and the destined-to-be-together couple start their relationship not with a kiss, or a compliment, but with a berating and a firm spanking. But outré subject matter aside, Secretary is a romantic movie at heart, in which true love – peculiar as this particular love might be – wins out. In the end, it’s sweet more than sexy, quirkily funny more than risqué; this has got to be the cutest movie about sado-masochism ever made. Which may add to that little edge of disturbing for some folks too: even those who are creeped-out by the notions of dominance and submission will find it hard not to root for Lee and Mr. Grey to quit fighting the attraction and just get together, already. When they first meet, both Lee and Mr. Grey are two pretty damaged individuals, so emotionally scarred that they’re barely able to function in life. As played by Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader, though, they’re never pathetic. Gyllenhaal’s Lee has a pluckiness about her that makes it impossible not to adore her from the start; Spader, on the other hand, manages to show both the uglier sides of Grey’s psycho obsessive-compulsiveness, while gradually bringing out the character’s more appealing vulnerability as well.  (Both actors are just plain perfect; it’s hard to imagine anyone else in their roles.) When the two finally stop eyeing each other surreptitiously and the full-on S&M fun begins, it’s not a dark, dirty thing at all: these two characters so obviously fulfill an emotional need in each other that the spanking feels like a relief. Grey might be the dominant one, Lee the submissive, but there’s a curious equality that’s achieved in the relationship nonetheless: each has control in what happens between them, each is in tune with the needs of the other. Maybe it’s not sex or love the way you personally happen to know it, but it’s honest, and true, and heartfelt. And good too, for the two people involved at least. In the end, it’s perhaps a bit misleading to call Secretary a movie about S&M – this isn’t a movie about sex, but about tenderness, understanding, and love. —reviewed by Yee-Fan Sun

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