The best way to get a Hollywood acting gig used to be to change your name to Baldwin. Nobody could tell Alec, Stephen and Billy apart anyway (Daniel? Who’s that?), so one more Baldwin was perfectly feasible. But the Baldwins have fallen out of favor, peaking several years ago as the butt of a great “South Park” joke, and the movie industry has chosen a new surname du jour.
Siblings Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal, who played siblings Donnie and Elizabeth in cult flick Donnie Darko, have made 2002 their year. Brother Bear already indie’d up the joint in Lovely & Amazing and The Good Girl, and will soon star in Moonlight Mile. Sister Bear, for her part, owns Secretary from opening frame to closing credits. As Lee Holloway, a girl whose inner pain is trying so hard to escape the confines of her body that it’s happier to leave through searing welts and bloody knife wounds than her self-censored tongue, Gyllenhaal gives a performance both maddening and touching.
We meet Lee as she steps out of a mental hospital (where she was sent to recover emotionally from whatever it was that caused her to compulsively cut herself) and back into reality. Reality, of course, is a relative term. Dying to escape a stifling, pathetic home life, Lee takes a job as secretary to lawyer E. Edward Gray (James Spader), who raises orchids in his office. (Why is it that orchid-growers are always sensitive, slightly off fellows? David Lynch used this to great effect in “Twin Peaks” a decade ago; it works similarly here in exposing Gray as the meticulous, wedgie-victim sort.) Gray gets off by engaging his employee in a bizarre S&M relationship that includes spanking and hunger strikes. He’s unaware of Lee’s history, and is wholly unprepared for just how much she enjoys the perks of employment.
High comedy this is not, although the Secretary trailer, featuring madcap music and a slick threading together of funny bits (in the actual film they’re separated by long stretches of quiet), would have us believe otherwise. There’s much to laugh at in Secretary, but it’s nervous, queasy laughter. Most unexpected of all, Lee, through her obsession with feeling something (pain, pleasure, same difference), teaches Gray about love; she adores being dominated and believes she needs to be dominated, but it’s Gray who is exposed as the meek partner wracked with guilt. It’s hard to swallow, much in the same way it’s difficult to imagine Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf eloping to Vegas. But it’s a fairy tale nonetheless, albeit a weird one, with Lee’s victory every bit as decisive as her crimson-cloaked counterpart’s.
The problem with Secretary is that it puts all its eggs in one basket. While Lee gets a nice amount of shading and director Steven Shainberg provides Gyllenhaal with ample emotional clay, the supporting characters remain one-dimensional — and, in cases such as Lee’s mother (Lesley Ann Warren), no-dimensional. Even Spader plays a sad, überpervert variation on his impotent sex, lies and videotape voyeur. All of this makes Gyllenhaal look good, but she’d have come off rosy even if the other roles were written to Lee’s level, which invites the question, “Why?” If this is to be a showpiece role for Gyllenhaal, why should everybody else looked hackneyed by comparison? It’s not that her supporting cast is bad. It’s just that they have so much less to work with, and it makes Secretary an incomplete film. Remove Lee from the scenario equation and there’s little left besides the tentative scruff of Jeremy Davies (playing Lee’s boyfriend) and Spader’s half-lidded, pitiful domination.
Secretary is not the kind of movie that can get by on style points. But it can get by on Gyllenhaal’s performance, and promises more to come from her in the future. What’s really interesting is that while she played Mary McDonnell’s daughter in Donnie Darko, she bore little resemblance to the elder stateswoman of frosted-over, hidden feelings. In Secretary it’s easy to see why the two were cast as mother and daughter; Gyllenhaal’s seething serenity is an eerie reprisal of — and even an homage to — McDonnell’s past performances. She’s mastered the faint, nothing’s-wrong smile and the dreamy eyes that belie roiling emotion glittering just below the surface. Shainberg, unfortunately, has not.
Opens Friday exclusively at the Birmingham 8 (Old Woodward Ave., S of Maple, Birmingham; call 248-644-3456).
Erin Podolsky writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.