Based on a short story by Mary Gaitskill, it's the languorous tale of a fulfilling but physically painful romance between a spit-and-polish Southern California lawyer and his emotionally fragile new secretary, two lost souls who find joy together in a private world of humiliation, desire and physical abuse. And though I would agree it's original - it's the first aboveground romance movie I've seen in which the heroine is repeatedly spanked, verbally tormented and tied to a chair by her lover - it's not an experience I much enjoyed.
After hiring Lee for what is undoubtedly the weirdest law practice and office in modern California - one in which computers are banned, manual typewriters are the order of the day, work is sporadic and the pre-Raphaelite decor seems to have been planned by an antique salesman from a David Lynch movie - Grey treats her to a systematic campaign of emotional and physical deconstruction.
He criticizes her work, insults her and plays vicious little practical jokes involving bugs, dumpsters and spelling errors. But Lee, who enjoys slicing herself up in her free time and is driven to work by her overprotective mom (Lesley Anne Warren), proves to have a taste for pain and chatteldom. Soon the two are deeply in love, a development that puzzles the outside world. But since Grey has pulled this kind of stunt over and over again, always terminating the mauled employee after the thrill has gone, the question remains: What will happen to Lee when the whippings lose their luster?
Shainberg fudges part of the puzzle by suggesting that Lee is so childlike and dependent to begin with that her sadomasochistic office delights liberate her and pull her away from her poisonous, dysfunctional family cul-de-sac - something Gyllenhaal conveys with real subtlety. A Luis Bunuel would have pulled some acid, pungent humor from this situation, and a David Lynch (whose "Blue Velvet" was the major inspiration for writer-director Steven Shainberg) might have turned it into a lyrical, obsessive nightmare. But its Sundance prizes and kudos side, I found the movie a bit of a bore.
James Spader, a great typecast yuppie in the '80s, plays E. Edward Grey as a character so overarticulate, secretive and self-absorbed that the movie, with just a small turn of the screw, could have been hilarious or troubling. Gyllenhaal, by contrast, gives a performance so naked and unguarded that you feel sorry for her throughout - sometimes as much for the actress as the character.
Part of the problem with "Secretary," and the reason it prompts such diverse responses, is that, though inspired by Lynch, it isn't too obsessive or disturbing, and not very lyrical either. The movie stages its sadomasochism scenes in such a rapt way that we're obviously expected to get shivers watching them, but often they seem silly or strained. Shainberg has suggested a reason for that kind of dismissal - that older male viewers feel threatened (guilty?) by his film. Maybe he's right. But I felt no rapprochement with E. Edward's power trip, and no sympathetic interest in his legal or erotic practices.
1 1/2 stars (out of 4)
Directed by Steven Shainberg; written by Erin Cressida Wilson, based on the story by Mary Gaitskill; photographed by Steven Fierberg; edited by Pam Wise; production designed by Amy Danger; music by Angelo Badalamenti; produced by Andrew Fierberg, Shainberg, Amy Hobby. A Lions gate Films release; opens Friday, Sept. 27. Running time: 1:04. MPAA rating: R ( strong sexuality, some nudity, depiction of behavioral disorders, language).
E. Edward Grey - James Spader
Lee Holloway - Maggie Gyllenhaal
Peter - Jeremy Davies
Joan Holloway - Lesley Ann Warren
Burt Holloway - Stephen McHattie Dr. Twardon - Patrick Bauchau
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.