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Lions Gate presents
Secretary (2002)

Mr. Grey: It's very dull work.
Lee: I like dull work.

- James Spader, Maggie Gyllenhaal

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: April 06, 2003

Stars: James Spader, Maggie Gyllenhaal
Other Stars: Jeremy Davies, Patrick Bauchau, Stephen McHattie, Lesley Ann Warren
Director: Steven Shainberg

Manufacturer: Metropolis DVD
MPAA Rating: R for strong sexuality, some nudity, depiction of behavior disorders, and language
Run Time: 01h:50m:59s
Release Date: April 01, 2003
UPC: 658149811324
Genre: black comedy

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- A-B+C+ B-

DVD Review

My experience of offices is that they are uniformly stultifying, but I also know that everybody has their turn-ons, and that they can come in unexpected places. (I confess to a weakness for high-end kitchenware. The Williams-Sonoma catalog, especially the copper skillets, are my version of porn.) Secretary inhabits exactly that space, where one person's bottle of White-Out is another's bit of sexual foreplay. Even if your preferences don't mesh with the characters', you're still likely to find this a sly, winning and unusual entertainment.

The film is based on a short story of the same name by Mary Gaitskill, and I'm a big Gaitskill fan, but couldn't see just how her work, full of fetishism and sexual candor, would make it to the screen in any recognizable form. So great credit goes to director Steven Shainberg and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson, for respecting Gaitskill's voice, and for filling out her brief tale (available in the volume Bad Behavior) into a satisfying and mischievous bit of cinema. Lee (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is just out of a mental institution—she cuts herself, scalds herself with teakettles, takes an inappropriate and dangerous pleasure in the self-infliction of pain. She's back home with Mom (who hovers) and Dad (who drinks), and takes a typing class at the local community college—no reason not to get out of the house, so she scans the want ads in the local paper.

She answers the first, placed by an attorney, looking for a secretary—the lawyer is E. Edward Grey (James Spader), who is committed to old-fashioned typewriters in this time of word processing. Lee shocks her family by getting and taking the job.

A paralegal is in part time, but Lee and Mr. Grey are usually the only two in the office, and the relationship between these two comprises the bulk of the picture. We sense Lee's fragility and that she's falling for the boss—he's much more opaque, but he's up to more than just having the new hire take dictation. There's a palpable feeling, when we meet him, that he's a little off—he tends with a little too much verve to his orchids, for instance, and dials his phone not with his finger, but with one of the darts that sits on his desk.

If you can only handle a straight-arrow view of sexuality, this surely isn't the movie for you. Much of the fun of Secretary is the dance between Lee and Mr. Grey, with her especially trying to figure out how to push his buttons. (She breaks through a barrier with him by sending him a dead earthworm via overnight mail. How I love that in a woman.) It's full of fetishistic detail—the movie intertwines sex, food and office supplies into a combination that's combustible for the two participants, and even if typewriter ribbons don't get you hot, you've got to admire the ardor and pursuit of these two.

And the two lead actors are great at this. Nobody plays a guy in the throes of sexual issues quite like Spader—his Mr. Grey could be a distant cousin to Graham, the character that Spader played in sex, lies and videotape—and the actor rips it up with a character who, in the wrong hands, could seem either irredeemably vulgar or offensively egotistical, or both. And Spader is well matched by Gyllenhaal, much of whose best acting isn't on the words—her face registers all the many emotions in Lee's mind, her longings, yearning, self-loathing, even though she frequently lacks the ability to articulate her own feelings.

They get good supporting work, too, especially from Lesley Ann Warren as Lee's mother, sort of a maternal stalker, and Jeremy Davies as the boyfriend who yearns for a "normal" relationship with Lee. The script takes some wrong turns in its final act, with a couple of improbable plot turns that are included just to wrap things up, it seems, and not because they come organically out of character. But if that's the worst to be said for Secretary, it's because the movie is really pretty good, though the more prudish out there would be well advised to stay away.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The film was shot on a modest budget, so extra high marks go to the production team for giving it such a singular and rich look. Colors can sometimes look overly brassy, but there's little debris and few scratches, and generally it appears as if the transfer was done with great care.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes

Audio Transfer Review: One of Spader's choices for his character is that Mr. Grey rarely speaks above a whisper, and while aesthetically that's absolutely valid, it makes for some serious audio problems. The actor can be difficult to make out—I put on the subtitles more than once—and if you jack up the volume too high, your speakers will brutalize you the next time there's a music cue. It's a pretty severe problem in the dynamics on a track that otherwise sounds clean.

Audio Transfer Grade: C+


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 24 cues
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Other Trailer(s) featuring Hit Me
1 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Steven Shainberg and Erin Cressida Wilson
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. ads for the original soundtrack and the published screenplay
  2. photo gallery
Extras Review: The director and screenwriter provide an illuminating commentary track—the former has more to say than the latter, especially, as you might imagine, about the technical aspects of moviemaking. The comparison between Lee and Little Red Riding Hood (and, hence, Mr. Grey and the Big Bad Wolf) is especially apt, and Shainberg points to Leaving Las Vegas as a crucial influence for him. And the writer displays a writer's imagination, insisting that there's potential for eroticism in everything, especially in dullness and repetition. (And that's about as far as I care to speculate on her.)

Behind the Secretary (7m:07s) is a fairly pro forma behind-the-scenes documentary, featuring interviews with the two lead actors and the director, who says that he wants Secretary to do for S&M what My Beautiful Launderette did for gay relationships—that is, make them part of the public discussion, and acceptable. A trailer for another of the director's films can be found under the Lion's Gate logo; the photo gallery features fourteen snapshots from the set. Also! For reasons I don't quite understand! Everything in the menus ends with an exclamation point!

Extras Grade: B-


Final Comments

Come to Secretary with an open mind about what people find erotic and you'll be rewarded with a smart, dangerous and frequently hilarious romance. And you'll find it hard to look at those little circular sticky paper reinforcers the same way ever again.


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