What freaks!! This movie to me is a meditation on what love is. I feel like it presents this model of love that you inevitably have to take step back and be like, “I’m sorry, what?” but the movie implores you to move past that and see that it’s just two people who want the same thing and found each other and they make each other happy and THAT’S what love is. Also worms!!
If you have not seen, James Spader (who FREAKS me out- I don’t like him on The Office and I don’t like him here- he has this unsettling inhuman energy, like an assured confidence that’s placed in something I can’t see) is a paralegal (lawyer? Unclear) who is hiring a secretary. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Lee Holloway, (great name) a young girl (VERY young and I have some opinions about that later) looking for a job. Partially to solidify her own identity, partially to escape her home where her father is an alcoholic and pretty volatile. She also has what appears to be a Lisa Frank self-mutilation kit and cuts herself sometimes but she’s trying to stop.
Ok so, her mom drives her to this law office place to interview for the job. She brings her typing scores instead of a resume because she’s never had a job before and it’s 2002. She looks like a child in a purple raincoat clutching her wet piece of paper. The first scene of the movie is her wearing bar handcuffs, making coffee and printing papers with her teeth, and she looks so hot then it says, “6 Months Earlier” and she is a tiny baby. Maggie did a great job and I feel like not many people could pull off this transformation so convincingly.
James Spader as “Mr. Grey” basically just starts ordering her around and that’s how she knows she got the job. She’s working there for a little and during this time he oscillates pretty quickly between insightful and attentive, and domineering and an asshole. The straw that tips the scales on their relationship is one day, he comes in and shows her the typos he’s circled in red pen on a letter she typed, yelling. He tells her to come into his office and to bring the letter, then instructs her to bend over the desk with her palms flat and read the letter. As soon as she reaches a typo he spanks her. Slowly at first and seemingly waiting for her to decide if she wants to stay or not, but then really getting into it and going full force once she does. She checks her butt in the bathroom after and it is completely purple and raw.
A thought about the age thing. Here’s something fucked up about me- I actually am into porn and stuff where the girl is younger (not child porn but like “just turned 18,” that shit) but I judge the men!!! I think they are bad/gross even though I like it and seek it out sometimes 🙂 So when they start to have a sexual relationship (because duh), I am into it for her (and me) but I’m absolutely judging James Spader!! Whose character is called, “Mr. Grey,” by the way-how is 50 Shades of Grey also BDSM with that character name? It has to be a reference to this, right? If someone knows can they tell me? I know it’s Twilight fan fic but what if it’s also a Secretary allusion??
The script makes sure to lay out the connections thematically between: she used to cut herself to manifest internal pain as physical but she doesn’t have to do that now because this sexual relationship incorporates pain as pleasure, etc. etc. Which felt a LITTLE clunky but I guess you gotta do what you gotta do.
Oh! I forgot about Peter. And to be fair, so did Lee ultimately. Peter is from high school, they went to high school together, he also had a mental/nervous breakdown (two peas in a pod!!) and he’s semi-courting Lee. They go on a date that’s a restaurant inside a laundromat which I loved and they make out on a dryer. He is James Spader’s foil, very sweet and shy and “vanilla.” What a loser, he just wants to fuck her! Meanwhile Spader’s over her cumming on her back while he’s watering an orchid or whatever. (There’s this whole thing about orchids, I would guess it symbolizes the beauty that can come from control? Probably?).
So Lee and Mr. Grey’s office BDSM romance progresses, pretty soon she’s bringing him faxes on her knees and stapling things with her face and calling him to tell him what her mom made for dinner and he tells her what she’s allowed to eat. Awww, lovebirds!!
But one day Lee’s sunbathing with her friends and her mom, as you do, and they get a call that her dad is at a hospital somewhere and they go visit him. He’s in bad shape. Lee has promised she won’t cut herself but she needs a coping mechanism right now so she goes to Mr. Grey’s house. He’s running on the treadmill listening to a walkman (can you imagine?). She can’t bring herself to say what she wants and he dismisses her and is cold. Then the next day and the next few weeks he stops doing all the stuff and she keeps trying to get him to, finally putting an earthworm in a letter to him. This causes him to go over the edge and he cums on her back but then fires her?
This part I did hate and it felt really familiar and gendered, a man who pulls someone into a habit he doesn’t like but then pushes them aside when he decides it’s bad with no regard for their feelings? It’s a weird scene and she’s sad and then she has a flashback to how she was hired: seeing the last secretary leaving the exact same way she’s leaving now, holding a severance check in her teeth, crying mascara, a box of her things in hands. It’s a cycle!! Lee lays at the bottom of a pool about it for a while and seems to get past it. She gets engaged to Peter, but then in a Julia Roberts moment, literally runs away after trying on Peter’s mom’s dress (you couldn’t have changed back into your cardigan before you run over a mile in a field?) to the office. She tells Mr. Grey she loves him, he tells her she doesn’t, she slaps him, he tells her to put her palms flat on the desk, feet on the ground and not to move until he comes back. Then he leaves for like 2 weeks.
She stays, pees herself, breaks up with Peter, talks to his ex-wife? (could not tell if some was supposed to be hallucinated?) the NEWS comes?? They do a story on her. Mr. Grey reads about it in the paper and is satisfied with whatever she says and comes back for her. I think he brings her a Coolatta. It looks exactly like a Coolatta. She’s dehydrated because she hasn’t eaten in days and he carries her (in the pee wedding dress) to his house where his bed is made of grass???? and bathes her. Then they get married and fuck against a tree and live happily ever after.
Whew! I mean, we have to stan. They found what everyone is looking for-someone who sees your weird and either shares it or appreciates it.
Final thoughts: I loved Maggie’s wardrobe, the clothing & styling was such a subtle shift during her sexual evolution but if you look at the end and the beginning it’s completely different. I can’t take James Spader seriously. Do people want to fuck him?? He feels like an alien that found a person suit. Perfect for this role because it genuinely felt fucked up and weird, I found some of the things a little hot, I was watching it with my brother so that probably made it more difficult for me to “access the vibe” shall we say. I think I just loved Maggie and since she wanted him and he made her happy I had a very, ‘sure why not’ attitude towards him but in general I hated his character and felt gross about a lot of the things he did. The criticizing and controlling mainly, it’s not for me personally, but I also don’t have an alcoholic father or look good in a bow blouse so who am I to say?
I thought the masturbation scene was perfect, how she kept switching back and forth between who she was imagining then locking in on a memory?? Yes, Maggie. Also yes the director, Steven Shainberg. God bless him, his IMDB photo is him in a black turtleneck with a single gold chain just beaming. Speaking of IMDB-there’s pictures from this premiere on there and it looks like Maggie took her brother (Jake, who we know & love) and wow are they both very hot.
So happy I watched this, I’d been hearing about it for a while and glad to have it under my cultural belt now, as they say (no one has ever said that!!). 4 out of 5 orchids, will masturbate next time when I’m not next to my literal brother!
P.S. I think a very valid criticism of this movie would be if you are uncomfortable with A. their age difference and/or B. her interest in BDSM as it relates to her trauma-informed coping mechanisms. Those both felt like potential pitfalls of the movie. The way the character was written they didn’t become problematic factors for me personally, but if you react negatively to them I think that’s really fair.