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Reviewed by Dave Luttig


Directed by Steven Shainberg

Starring James Spader, Maggie Gyllenhaal

Rated R



Grade: B-



            What is "normal" behavior? Who decides? Is it any one particular individual or does mob rule?

            Case in point: is it normal for me to be in my early 40's, single, and working at a video story for wages unsuitable for any intelligent being? Or would you consider that abnormal? What about you? Are you a member of a family that has a mother, father, 2.5 kids, and a dog in your family? If not, are you abnormal?

"Normal" depends upon a point of view, doesn't it?

            These are things to consider when watching Director Steven Shainberg's very odd and unusual romantic comedy, Secretary. It's about two people who, at first glance, the "normal" person might judge as "abnormal" but as the film moves along, it's apparent that maybe they're a lot more "normal" than most of us.

            Maggie Gyllenhaal (40 Days and 40 Nights, Donnie Darko, Riding in Cars With Boys) is Lee Holloway, a young woman living at home with her "dysfunctional" family. (Aren't we all from dysfunctional families nowadays? Isn't that why we laugh so hard at comedians telling jokes about what family get-togethers are like at the holidays?) Holloway has a huge disorder, outside of being related to her family, of course. She's a "cutter," somebody who will literally cut themselves open with any sharp object when overwhelmed with emotion, tearing the skin until blood appears, and, in some cases, lots of it. Apparently it is an outlet of some kind for afflicted individuals, despite the scars it inevitably leaves behind.

            Recently discharged from a psychiatric hospital, she inadvertently stumbles across the Help Wanted section in a local newspaper after (now pay attention) acing a typing class at the local community college under the tutelage of very stern and disciplinary instructor who walks loudly AND carries a big stick. She subsequently interviews for a secretarial position with E. Edward Grey, an attorney with a small practice. James Spader (The Watcher, Crash, Stargate), who plays the enigmatic Grey, breaks every law imaginable with his interview questions, but Holloway obediently responds anyway. She lands the job and over the course of the next few months, an unusual relationship between the two develops. Of course, what two consenting adults do behind closed doors isn't anyone's business but their own (hence the appeal and focal point of the picture). It does, however, conflict with an existing relationship she has with Jeremy Davies (Ravenous, Saving Private Ryan) who has his own emotional problems. But if needs aren't being met in one relationship, a person goes elsewhere to get them met, right?

            Although I really thought both Gyllenhaal and Spader excellent (especially Gyllenhaal), I still had problems with the storyline. Comedy or no, not all children of dysfunctional families are cutters or end up in institutions; some come from families as normal as it gets. Not that this was inferred, mind you; I just didn't like it. Grey himself obviously has skeletons in his closet but no mention is ever made of them to explain his behavior. Why one character but not the other? Spader also plays Grey's character firmly but so gentle and soft-spoken in some areas to the point that I had to adjust the volume control every time he mumbled so I could understand him. Lastly, if it was a comedy, I didn't get it; it certainly didn't play like one for me; more like a drama.

            Whatever floats your boat, though; it's still fascinating to watch, regardless of what's "normal" for you.





review by Dave Luttig 2003




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