"I think I would have quite a time spanking the hell out of her," James Spader reportedly said after seeing Maggie Gyllenhaal's audition tape for Secretary, a movie about the outer limits of office politics. And I suppose it's a tribute to Steven Shainberg's deep, dark comedy that both actors ' Spader the veteran, Gyllenhaal the ingÃnue ' seem to be having the time of their lives. Spader plays a sadistic yet needy lawyer who runs through secretaries so fast he never bothers to cancel his Help Wanted ad. And Gyllenhaal plays a masochistic young woman fresh out of a mental institution who could really use that spanking. Together, they're a mismatch made in heaven, he as the reluctant master, she as the more-than-willing slave.
Adult entertainment at its most rarefied, Secretary may offend some, so pointedly does it eroticize the power imbalance between a male boss and a female employee. But the movie asks us to remember that one woman's sexual harassment is another woman's sexual fulfillment. And the secretary's home life ' trapped in a family that treats her like a basket case ' is so miserable that anything is an improvement as long as it gets her out of the house. Adapting a Mary Gaitskill short story, Shainberg structures the movie like an extended S&M scenario; even the dialogue has the stilted lilt of bad porno. But hey, whatever it takes for these two lonely people to find each other across deep chasms of pain.
Spader's great, by the way, and Gyllenhaal's a revelation.