Saying that work is painful takes on a whole new meaning in Secretary, a movie adapted from Mary Gaitskill. It takes a look at an extremely strange office romance, literally bound by pain and sado-masochistic practices. Director Steven Shainberg (Hit Me, The Prom) makes things odder by making his movie, what can be loosely termed a 'romantic comedy.' Secretary is the kind of movie that blends different genres together, hoping for some element of synergy to emerge. It does here, but not quite to the degree that it should. For Lee (Maggie Gyllenhaal, 40 Days and 40 Nights, Riding in Cars with Boys) the pain is the outlet that allows her to keep her sanity.

Lee is the secretary for E. Edward Grey (James Spader, The Watcher, Supernova), a seemingly dull lawyer. This is Lee's first job after a stint in an institution (well, her first job ever) for cutting herself. She is trying to improve, but the urge to cut herself still wins out. She even takes iodine and knives to work. Grey is a stickler for small things. All he wants her to do is answer the phone and type things correctly, on a typewriter, not a computer. When she makes a mistake, he circles the error in red and rudely asks her to retype the letter.

There is an attraction between Lee and Grey, but Grey doesn't want to act on it. At one point, he is so frustrated with her continual mistakes that he spanks her, taking their relationship to a whole new bizarre level. Lee frames her mistakes and engages in constant 'play' with Lee. For Lee, this is a new place to focus. She can replace the pain from cutting herself with the pain that Grey causes her. The Grey character is a little stranger, only because Shainberg and co-adapter Erin Cressida Wilson never let the audience get a complete picture of him. He has a strong attraction for Lee, and also knows that she cuts herself. Is he rescuing her from personal anguish, acting on his attraction, both, neither or something else? Hard to say. Spader is not the greatest actor, and this surely doesn't help things.

Secretary won a special jury award at Sundance for originality, and original is certainly an apt description. Although overtones of bondage and domination abound, Secretary is not overtly kinky. Shainberg is using S&M as the connection between Grey and Lee. Here are two very lonely and different people. They find something that both of them can relate to, and this is what pulls them toward each other. The concept is weirdly appealing, and Gyllenhaal is a nice surprise. In the end, Secretary is trying a little too hard to be weird just to be weird, instead of moving the story forward.

Mongoose Rates It: Not Bad.
1 hour, 44 minutes, Rated R for strong sexuality, some nudity, depiction of behavioral disorders, and language.

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