A mentally disturbed young woman from a middle-class family takes a typing course and lands a job with an eccentric lawyer in a shabby office where she learns the joys of sadomasochism and finds true love.
After Lee (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a mentally disturbed woman who mutilates her body, takes a typing course, she goes looking for a job and is immediately lucky. Lawyer E. Edward Grey (James Spader), obviously not very demanding, hires her as typist in his shabby and not very busy office. Grey is immediately annoyed with the errors in Lee's letters. Fortunately, Lee has the support of her overly protective mother Joan (Lesley Ann Warren) and devoted boyfriend Peter ( Jeremy Davies), another loser with parents proud of his job at J.C. Penney's. But Lee and Edward, both recovering from nervous breakdowns, develop a sadomasochistic relationship which has the duo enjoying spanking and masturbatory sessions at the office. Lee grows so fond of the abuse that she purposefully makes mistakes to provoke Edward. Eventually Lee realizes that she doesn't love Peter, and she and Edward acknowledge the perversity that binds them.
Gyllenhaal is charmless as Lee; the very talented Spader, seeming to want to carry on with the Bud Cort banner, is wasted in his role as lawyer Grey; Davies, usually interesting in a variety of offbeat roles, here phones in his familiar goofiness as the boyfriend; and Warren, who triumphed as the slutty gang moll in Victor/Victoria, has absolutely nothing to do here as Lee's overbearing mother.
Writer/director Steven Shainberg favors meaningless close-ups, tacky sets and settings, lugubrious and phony characters and lame material all around. He fails to make kinkiness amusing, his characters compelling or his story dynamic.
Unless you happen to be throwing a ''big fat Greek wedding'' that mainstream audiences want to attend, indie films made in Los Angeles rarely cut it (recent items like Full Frontal and Ivan's XTC come to mind). The latest evidence supporting the theory that the blockbuster/sitcom factory town is inimical to indies is Secretary, the dreary, lumbering story of a mentally ill woman who somehow lands a typist's job with a lawyer and finds true love with him, thanks to their mutual thrill with sadomasochistic game play. The film's faux, drab retro look and its locus in a bland, timeless suburbia further alienates. What were they thinking here? Bare, bruised bottoms, masturbation sloppiness and worms in envelopes as perpetrated by the mentally challenged should not be among the most memorable moments in any film. In fact, Secretary is strongest as a good argument for the L.A. Film Office being a little more selective in issuing permits to indies.