After seeing countless regurgitations of the same formulas, one tends to have a certain respect for the bizarre. Secretary, billed as a romantic comedy with an S & M twist, is certainly odd, and as such it demands attention. Its lack of quality will likely be a secondary consideration for those scouring the art houses in search of a diversion from the Swimfans and Sweet Home Alabamas that dominate the multiplex. It's hard not to admire the effort, but harder still to admit that, in this particular case, one may have better luck at the multiplex.
Though Maggie Gyllenhaal's career has taken a back seat to that of younger brother Jake, the 24-year-old has recently been making waves on the indie scene -- she's best known for playing alongside her lil' bro in the cult hit Donnie Darko. Here, she stars as Lee Holloway, a young woman who spent years in a mental institution after her parents discovered her penchant for self-mutilation. Having completed therapy, she seems fine but still carries a sewing kit around, ready to flip it open at the first sign of distress. She takes a job as a secretary to E. Edwin Gray (James Spader), a lawyer who sees through Lee's emotional wall to her masochistic nature, and proceeds to punish her rampant spelling errors with vigorous spankings. It is the beginning of a strange relationship, consummated not through sex but through the systematic infliction of pain.
Secretary has atmosphere to spare, with a jazzy, faux-porn soundtrack and a humorously suggestive set that's a cross between a classy office and a medieval dungeon. But the script makes a disastrous miscalculation: our sympathy isn't with the narcissistic Lee or the controlling Edwin, but with Lee's unassuming boyfriend (Jeremy Davies), who is inevitably and cruelly left by the wayside. There is no problem with telling stories about characters we may not like, but we can hardly be asked to empathize with their relationship; Lee and Edwin's odd love affair remains nothing more than a curiosity.
It doesn't help that the movie seems to be terminally confused. At first, it adheres to a simple, but unique metaphor: S & M as life -- you're either dominant or you're submissive. But towards the end of the film, this mantra is abruptly exchanged for a less intriguing idea: sadomasochists live in your neighborhood.