MORIARTY Pretends To Be In TORONTO!! Reviews SECRETARY!!
Published at: Sept. 10, 2002, 6:54 a.m. CST by staff
Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.
I can’t sleep this morning. I’ve been working hard for the last few weeks on my creative endeavors, things that keep me moored here in LA, and I've been loving every second of it.
As a result, I’ve had to just watch enviously from afar as Ravvy’s been reporting in from Venice and as we got reports from Telluride and as the first few days worth of coverage have started to trickle in now from Toronto. I met the wonderful Dusty and Joan Cohl at Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival earlier this year, and I was looking forward to seeing them in Toronto. I’m not complaining about missing it... I mean, I’m working. I’m writing for someone. I’m digging into the research and really immersing myself in it. Let’s be honest... that’s a good reason to miss something.
Even when I’m buried, though, I can’t help myself. I have to sneak away to see films. And when people offer to show me some of what’s screening at Toronto so I can peek at it here, I have to take the opportunity. I knew next to nothing about any of these films when I sat down to see them, and as a result, they all took me by genuine surprise. Two of them are being shown as midnight films at the festival, and the other one is set to be released by Lions Gate later this month. None of them are mainstream items, and they all have their own particular charms.
So whattaya say we just jump right in? First up, there's...
Director Steven Shainberg (HIT ME), who has adapted Mary Gaitskill’s original short story along with screenwriter Eric Cressida Wilson, deserves credit for tackling such tonally difficult material, and also for having the good common sense to cast the luminous Maggie Gyllenhaal in the lead. I have no idea if this unique and magnetic actress is going to cross over to mainstream stardom, but if she does, this film is going to be where it starts.
SECRETARY is not a great movie. It’s not the kind of film that I am going to insist that you run out and see. It is a film of simple and subtle pleasures, and how much you enjoy it will depend in large part on how you react to the performances from Gyllenhaal and James Spader. There are other people in the film, but they make little or no impression. This is about what happens between Lee and her new boss, E. Edward Grey. Everything else is secondary, and in a way, that’s the point of the film, so it’s hard to criticize the film for its tunnel vision.
The film begins with Lee being released from an institution on the day of her sister’s wedding. It’s pretty obvious why she was in there in the first place when she begins cutting herself secretly. It’s no wonder. Her homelife is a horrible cartoon, a little too dark to be funny, a little too broad to be taken seriously. Somehow, Gyllenhaal strikes just the right tone, even when the script doesn’t. She gets us through the start of the film, through Lee’s typing training, and into the heart of the piece when she goes in to interview with a lawyer about the want ad he placed.
Every moment that happens between Spader and Gyllenhaal, I was captivated. Something chemical and basic happens between them as performers. In a film like this, something that has to do with attraction and love and need and desire, it’s next to impossible to fake heat. How many movies have been notoriously miscast, resulting in cold and ineffective onscreen relationships? You have to pray for alchemy, and Shainberg got incredibly lucky. Even in the first moment between them, there’s something going on that is unspoken, deeper than even subtext. E. Edward Grey recognizes something in Lee, she recognizes something in him, and without even speaking about it, they simply snap into place, ready for whatever’s next.
Under the careful, tentative touch of E. Edward Grey, Lee blossoms, and this is the part of the film where I think the case can be made that Gyllenhaal steps up as a real find. It’s not an act. The actress comes to life as this passage of the film unfolds, and she actually seems to become more beautiful, more interesting, more real. Dozens and dozens of Cinderella stories are made by Hollywood, films like SHE’S ALL THAT or THE PRINCESS DIARIES where a beautiful girl is suddenly discovered to be... well... beautiful. Turning a swan into a swan sort of undermines the whole ugly duckling formula. With Gyllenhaal, it’s not that she’s ugly at the beginning of the film so much as it is that she simply isn’t at home in her own skin. She isn’t playing some codified Hollywood version of the outsider; she’s a fucking alien life form. And as she comes to realize who she is, and how Grey fits into her life, she begins to inhabit her body with a new confidence. Shainberg shows a very sure hand in the way he keeps Gyllenhaal completely clothed throughout the film until a crucial moment. When she is finally revealed, nude, her body scarred from the pains in her past, she’s achingly pretty because Spader sees her as beautiful. We see her with his eyes by that point, and she’s transcendent.
The message of this film isn’t particularly new or shocking or unexpected. What makes SECRETARY distinct and worthwhile is the particular version of this story that it’s chosen to tell. The film says that why we love who we love is often a mystery to us. The film says that love normalizes even the most extreme needs through acceptance. Perhaps there is something bold about saying that pain can bring healing as long as it’s applied by the right hand, but even that seems obvious and even normal thanks to the way that Gyllenhaal demonstrates her own acceptance of the idea. There’s a sequence towards the end of the film that veers into the surreal, a romantic gesture that becomes an endurance test, and I can appreciate some of the ideas in this stretch of the film more than the actual execution. Despite these moments where Shainberg loses his firm grip on the material, I think there’s a whole lot to like about SECRETARY, and I would advise you to take someone with you who turns you on. Even if the particular games in this movie aren’t to your liking, it may start one or both of you thinking about what you would prefer. Any film that intelligently provokes that particular type of discussion afterwards is worth at least a look.
I’ll be back later today with a look at MY LITTLE EYE and VOLCANO HIGH, two of the movies being shown in Midnight Madness. Right now, I’ve gotta shut my eyes for a few...