The term "romantic comedy" feels very inadequate to describe the movie Secretary, even though this is a very funny movie with plenty of comedy. It's a typical "girl meets boy" story, with several atypical twists.

Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) has problems. Her nervous habit of cutting herself led to her being institutionalized, and when released she lives and home and deals with her sister's picture-perfect marriage and her father's drinking. She has a pretty average boyfriend in Peter (Jeremy Davies) but she wants more. So Lee goes to secretarial school, which leads to a most original job.

From the moment Lee applies to a lawyer's ad for a secretary, it's clear several things are amiss: The office is in shambles and the secretary in there leaves in tears. Then Lee meets Mr. Grey (James Spader), a blend of intensity, quirkiness, and shyness. He explains that the position is simple -- typing and answering phones -- and, after a few somewhat personal questions, Lee is hired.

However, Mr. Grey is not an ordinary man, or an ordinary boss. His demands soon have Lee getting close to overwhelmed, and soon he takes a more... hands-on approach to disciplining Lee for typos or other errors. In the real world, this would lead to a massive lawsuit. In Secretary, this taps into something in Lee that she can't resist. But Mr. Lee also feels self-loathing and disgust in the very acts that Lee finds captivating, so soon she's pursuing him in this unusual office relationship: When he says "Look, we can't do this 24 hours a day, seven days a week" she answers back simply, "Why not?"

Movies often treat sexually unusual material either for cheap laughs, exploitation, or condemnation. Secretary rises above numerous such opportunities, instead making the office s&m relationship into an integral part of the lives of these two people. There's plenty of humor here, but never at the expense of the main characters. And while there is both sexual activity and substantial nudity, neither are ever gratituous or salacious.

Gyllenhaal and Spader are the keys to making this movie work. As a damaged person discovering herself, Gyllenhaal demonstrates vulnerability, quirkiness, and finally self-strength and determination. Spader's Mr. Gray is a mass of neuroses, needing to be in charge but also unsure of how to deal with his impulses. These two are superior to just about all the other leads in the seemingly endless string of mainstream romantic comedies.

If you haven't guessed by now, Secretary is not for the easily offended. If that's not you, I very highly recommend this very funny, very smart, very exciting (I have to use the phrase after all) romantic comedy.

Overall grade: A

Reviewed by James Lynch

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