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Friday, September 27, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

'Secretary' a fascinating exercise in style

Seattle Times movie critic

"Secretary"


***
With James Spader, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Lesley Ann Warren, Jeremy Davies. Directed by Steven Shainberg, from a screenplay by Erin Cressida Wilson, based on a short story by Mary Gaitskill. 104 minutes. Rated R for strong sexuality, some nudity, depiction of behavioral disorders, and language. Metro, Meridian.

If "Secretary" is indeed a romantic comedy, as its makers apparently would like us to believe, it's surely the oddest one I've ever seen.

The movie follows the guidelines of the genre carefully: Two people meet, are drawn to each other, form a close relationship, deal with turmoil and live happily ever after. Throw in some spanking, self-mutilation, chains and a lot of physical pain, and you've got "Secretary" — a weirdly fascinating exercise in style that works on its own terms, but won't exactly leave a tear in your eye.

James Spader (who, rather eerily, doesn't seem to have aged a day since "sex, lies & videotape") plays lawyer E. Edward Grey, who uses a dart to dial his telephone and whose offices are luridly decorated with a wallpaper that looks like bloodstains.

Into this forbidding den comes a babe in the woods: Lee (Maggie Gyllenhaal, whose big, blank blue eyes are heartbreaking), an innocent young woman recently released from a mental institution. She wants desperately to be useful — she rolls the word "secretary" around her mouth as if it's a delicious candy — and he hires her, not telling her at first about the office's rather unusual disciplinary practices.

Gyllenhaal, with her curly cupid's-bow smile, walks away with the movie, making us rejoice with Lee as she goes from inflicting pain upon herself to having someone else inflict it for her.

If this doesn't seem like much of a progression — well, it's a subtle awareness of power and a quiet lift in Lee's posture. Not exactly the kind of triumph-over-adversity that we're used to, but Gyllenhaal and director Steven Shainberg make it work.

"Secretary" is a textbook example of a movie that's not for everybody: It's easier to respect it than to enjoy it, and Spader's druggy blankness can be hard to take (although it's fascinating to watch him twitch; it's as if different parts of his face lead different lives). But the film is wonderfully styled, drenched in scandal-sheet reds, and it's like nothing else in theaters right now. Lee and Mr. Grey, in their odd way, may turn out as happy as Harry and Sally.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com.

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