Based on a short story by Mary Gaitskill (from her book Bad Behavior), Secretary explores Lee's tentative first steps out into the so-called "normal" world. Along the way, the film asks the type of big questions that keep some people up at night: Who's to say what's normal? Who's to say that love has to be kind and gentle? The answer, apparently, is: nobody.
It's difficult to tell whether Lee is a bit slow mentally or just terribly sheltered and emotionally immature. Perhaps a little of both. Given her constantly warring parents -- loopy, overprotective mother (Lesley Ann Warren) and alcoholic father (Stephen McHattie) -- and absolute shrew of a sister, Lee's ability to function on any level could be deemed an accomplishment.
Lee, however, is determined to break her bad habits and lead a socially acceptable life. Step one is finding a job. Dressed in her favorite purple raincoat and clutching a purple and pink umbrella (she also has purple ink in her pen), she applies for a secretarial position at the one-person law firm of E. Edward Grey, Esq. (James Spader). "It's very dull work," Grey warns her during the interview. "I like dull work," she assures him.
Grey, it turn out, has something of a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality, gently pointing out her typing errors one minute and lashing out at her harshly the next. He makes Lee crawl through the garbage dump to find documents he has only pretended to lose. He criticizes her for tapping her foot, playing with her hair and what he refers to as "sniffling." Lee, an innocent babe in the real world, just takes it. Nor does she complain when Grey's attentions take a decidedly personal and fetishistic turn. In fact, she quite likes it. As her enjoyment increases, however, he pulls back, leaving her both confused and upset.
The problem with Secretary isn't that it is offensive or unnerving -- although you get the idea the filmmakers hoped it might be at least one of those. The problem is that the story is slow-moving and dull. The hanky-panky between the two leads qualifies as mild dominance and submission, not sadomasochism. Quirky rather than kinky, it isn't even titillating. Lee's goofy, sometime boyfriend Peter (Jeremy Davies), who works at JC Penney and wants to marry her, is just one more flaky character. He hardly presents an attractive alternative. Heaven knows her family doesn't, either.
The one interesting snippet in the film is a remark by Grey when he discovers Lee's fondness for cutting herself with a razor blade. "The pain inside has to come to the surface. And when you watch it heal, it proves comforting." Of course, to follow that psychological thread would have made the film far more serious and emotionally interesting than either director Steven Shainberg (Hit Me) or screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson (a prize-winning playwright and sex columnist for Razor magazine) seems to have wanted. They prefer the black comedy approach. While there's nothing intrinsically wrong with that, the story ends up feeling awfully shallow.
Secretary was awarded a Special Jury Prize for Originality at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Apparently, all one has to do these days to be considered original is be a bit naughty in an innocent sort of way. While that might merit the description "nonconformist," it lacks the novelty and intellectual freshness of something like the truly clever Being John Malkovich. But then, maybe originality ain't what it used to be.