Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Lee, a near-suicidal masochist recently released from the mental hospital and back into the suffocating folds of her family. Determined to get her life together, she applies for a job as a secretary. James Spader plays E. Edward Grey, her new boss, an attorney with a flair for command and punishment that Lee notices - and loves - immediately.
They soon develop a mutually beneficial master-and-servant relationship, until Grey starts feeling pangs of guilt about his "abnormal" behavior. Lee, bless her heart, is quite happy to serve, and doesn't see anything wrong with sadomasochistic romance. Nor, to its credit, does Secretary, which despite its being a Sundance prizewinner (usually a sign of being reactionary and Hollywood-friendly) retains its edge and bite. The story doesn't judge its heroine for finding happiness in being spanked or crawling across the floor; nor does it back off from the idea that two people can find healthy love even if their sexual relationship is abnormal.
The performances are unexpectedly spot-on: Gyllenhaal embodies her mousy character to such a grand degree that I wonder if she is this mousy in real life. Spader, now aging gently into Christopher Walken territory, finds a lot more humor in his role than many of the sourpusses in the audience I saw it with did.
Secretary is actually quite funny. You know it's not to be taken too seriously when you see, at the beginning of the film, as Lee walks up to Grey's office to apply for the job, a wooden sign saying "SECRETARY WANTED" with flashing lights all around it. Even so, I was a little let down by the final 15 minutes of the film, when Lee puts her obedience to the test. I understand what the filmmakers are trying to say, but even with the unreality of the storytelling, I found this denouement a bit too silly.
Anyway, unless you're such a prude that you can't accept that somebody might enjoy bending over a desk and receiving a little spanking, you may find Secretary a great date movie - with the right date, of course.