2002 was a terrific year for American film comedies. I have already enjoyed Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze’s Adaptation, Dylan Kidd’s Roger Dodger, and (to my own and apparently everyone else’s surprise) Jeff Nathanson and Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can; and now I’ve caught up with Secretary, written by Erin Cressida Wilson (best first screenplay, Independent Spirit Awards), from the non-motion picture story by Mary Gaitskill, and directed by Steven Shainberg (special jury prize, Sundance). This may not be the best of the bunch (Punch-Drunk Love, for which Anderson won the directorial prize at Cannes, is that), but it’s the flat-out funniest. It had me weeping with laughter.
The protagonist is Lee Holloway, who, fresh out of a mental institution, lands her first job as secretary to lawyer Edward Grey. Lee indeed becomes Edward’s “secretary” in the literal sense—the keeper of his secrets; for, behind the closed door of the inner sanctum of his office, Grey applies (repeatedly) a resounding hand on her buttocks as their relationship takes what the outside world would describe as a sadomasochistic turn, with both of them role-playing, she, making job errors, he, whacking her good. Lee couldn’t be happier; but, tainted by the “outside” view, Edward eventually is miserable enough to discharge his soul-mate. One suffers for them both. But this is a comedy, after all; fitting the genre’s tradition, a marriage ensues, and on their honeymoon Lee is tied to a tree in a forest as Edward gives her a load other than paperwork. Lee subsequently muses, in voiceover, that they now appear to the world a perfectly ordinary couple. Behind more closed doors, though, each is lovingly ministering to the other’s, and her or his own, emotional needs.
One reason the film is an extraordinary achievement is that it wrings genuine old-fashioned romance and tenderness out of a situation that, handled otherwise, might have degenerated into causing smirks and even horror. Above all, the film’s humane and sociopolitical message is that people are entitled to their privacy, and few matters of privacy are no one else’s business than their sex lives. Quite wonderfully, in this film, once the Lee-Edward sexuality is removed from the context of guilt, so does the feeling of guilty pleasure dissolve, replaced by wholesome, happy pleasure. Perhaps the funniest passage, in a film of intensely funny passages, follows Edward’s instruction to Lee to keep her hands on his desk and feet on the ground. Either for real or fantastically in her mind (it doesn’t matter which), one person after another from her life, and beyond, appears in front of her (and the camera) to dispute her right to happiness—for instance, a misguided feminist trying to convince Lee that she is being exploited by her boss. Feminism is about freedom of choice and self-determination (and, legally, about equal rights, equal justice). Lee, no matter what, loyally and lovingly keeps those hands on that desk—just as Edward, loyally and lovingly, bathes Lee after the ensuing ordeal.
Too, when Peter, Lee’s fiancé, turns up in the office and confronts Lee’s odd appearance with her hands flat on the desk, the film’s most screamingly funny moment arises. “Are you doing something sexual?” the poor boy asks. Lee’s response: “Does it look sexual?”
No; but, in context, it is!
Maggie Gyllenhaal is excellent as Lee, and James Spader is brilliant as Edward Grey. Both retain their dignity and humanity in roles that, had they forfeited these qualities, would have yielded a considerably lesser, even dubious result.
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