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Master Wanted 

*Secretary (R)
Lions Gate Films

From Wal-Mart to the White House, power will always trump Spanish Fly at acquainting our colleagues' underwear with their ankles. But what does it mean when a workplace tryst is not some ploy for promotion? What happens when the employee manual gets violated in one, mmm-mmm good, swoop and it's not the start of a litigious relationship, but one that's loving and profound?

Based on a short story by Mary Gaitskill, Steven Shainberg's Secretary conflates the boundaries of boss and worker, victim and victimizer in what can only be called a love story. With restrained pleasure, James Spader plays E. Edward Grey, a repressed attorney (is there any other kind?) who churns through office help at a pace that requires an electric "Secretary Wanted" sign to hang outside his office.

Despite its indulgences in the common indie-film vice of excessive quirk, Secretary is an engaging tale of personal transformation through an unlikely avenue: S&M. Its shining star is Maggie Gyllenhaal, whose charming portrayal of Lee Holloway will hopefully herald the start of a big fat career. Despite her wholesome, girl-next-door demeanor, Gyllenhaal's Lee has been slicing her flesh with razor blades since the seventh grade. We meet her when she is discharged from a mental facility, but as Shainberg is none too interested in back story, we are told only what we need to know: that her cutting problem is a byproduct of an abusive alcoholic father, a doormat of a mother and an excruciatingly flawless older sister.

After excelling in a typing course, Lee finds herself working for Mr. Grey -- an attorney whose core competency involves ruminating like a tortured grad student. It is here that the story takes off as Gray's better judgement is pummeled by his baser instincts. He hovers above his new charge, micromanaging her work and demanding a regime change of her wardrobe and personal habits. Under his sado-tutelage and various fatwas, Lee stops cutting herself, and begins her life as an adult.

Spader and Gyllenhaal's boy-meets-girl foxtrot is a delight to watch because it's free of the hokey-pokey shyness endemic to romance films. The tension between Lee's insatiable need for guidance and her boss's obsession with control crescendos when he commands her to bend over his desk and stare at a recent typing gaffe. In the spanking that ensues, this unlikely couple smash through more cultural barriers than a lesbian Hezbollah commando at a Joe Lieberman fundraiser.

After successive spankdowns, Grey suffers recriminations of shame and ignores Lee. As a result, she discovers how much she wants and needs a controlled version of what she had been dangerously inflecting upon herself for so long.

Secretary is not without typos of its own: Lee's uninspired voiceover is a glaring narrative crutch that spoon-feeds subtext like a set of Cliff Notes. Charlie, a boyfriend Lee acquires while waiting for her boss to come around, is perhaps too convenient a narrative tool, though he's played with charm and humor by Jeremy Davies (the spanker of Spanking the Monkey). However, Davies character often functions as an excuse to sneer at those who toil at JC Penney for a living without the appropriate sense of irony.

Despite these glitches, Secretary manages to be a dark comedy with a light ending. That individuals find pleasure through consensual paddling is hardly news, but Shainberg never presents it as such. Rather, sex and sadomasochism can be more than a naughty thrill, but also a catalyst for growth and love. But be warned: You may never look at your boss -- or your typos -- the same way again.

-- John Dicker

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