Sean T. Collins has written about comics and popular culture professionally since 2001 and on this very blog since 2003. He has written for Maxim, The Comics Journal, Stuff, Wizard, A&F Quarterly, Comic Book Resources, Giant, ToyFare, The Onion, The Comics Reporter and more. His comics have been published by Top Shelf, Partyka, and Family Style. He blogs here and at Robot 6.
This installment's film: Secretary, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal (sp?) and James Spader, directed by Steven Shainberg. The following is a rant copied-and-pasted from a message board, so if you're expecting Pauline Kael, hit the library. But still, I think you'll get something out of it.
Nearly every problem I had with this movie could be traced to the fact that the filmmakers couldn't decide whether they wanted to do a broad Welcome to the Dollhouse/Edward Scissorhands-style parody of suburban mores or an incisive, naturalistic character piece like Closer or Naked or what-have-you. It's almost like they decided not to decide, which led to a film that had no internal consistency or logic and gave completely disproportionate weight to certain images and scenes, thus throwing the balance of the movie out of whack like a washing machine with an off-balance load.
For example, you walk into this lawyer's office (the lawyer is played by Spader), and it's weirdsville in an ostentatious way. He's got a permanent "secretary wanted" sign with lights around it like a vacancy/no vacancy sign at a motel; the entire place has been trashed; he's got some weird blue and purple waterfall hothouse thing in his office; he's acting like someone who just got finished having a nervous breakdown. So far, so okay--it's like watered down version of Barton Fink, where Barton enters that terrible hotel, everything is impossibly old and decrepit, the staff are genuinely bizarre, and he meets his neighbor because the neighbor is constantly bawling loudly. But in Secretary they don't stick with this tone at all. The best illustration of this is when she goes to his house, which is a regular house with a regular bed, and he's jogging on a treadmill listening to a walkman for chrissake. Why would his office be so bizarre, such a caricature of a weird guy's office, while his home is just "normal rich lawyer's house"? It's lazy; it's sloppy. Same with Lee (Gyllenhaal's character) herself: When we first meet her she's leaving what appears to be a fairly realistic residential treatment facility--she describes the routine, she hugs her therapist (who's a normal-looking guy) goodbye, etc. By the time she applies for a job--which she does with an airheaded glee and unbridled enthusiasm that, to put it mildly, does not exactly jibe with her "I can't feel anything in real life so I cut myself to make the pain real" demeanor before then--she's got this enormous Tim Burton purple raincoat on and is acting like, well, like a lazy Hollywood screenwriter's idea of what a submissive should act like, not like what an ACTUAL person who's going on an ACTUAL journey from self-mutilator to sexual submissive would act like. Fuck, man, I don't know anyone who'd sit there and allow themselves to be grilled on personal matters the way the lawyer grilled her during their first meeting. And that's to say nothing of the styleless stylization of the dream sequence, the cheap-shot kitsch of the laundromat-slash-diner, etc ad nauseum. If that's how you wanna play this--it's a fable, it's a fairy tale, whatever--fine, but realize that you're undoing any kind of sophisticated, reality-based character development you hinted at earlier.
And then there's the supporting characters, who again are not characters at all but IDEAS of characters. Leslie Ann Warren's mom character--I'm sorry, but am I the only one who's sick to death of these offensive suburban-mom-zombie stereotypes in movies? You can tell from the MOMENT you see her that she's not even going to APPROACH having three dimensions--she's just going to be comically accomodating to Lee in order to mask how over-the-top messed up her home life is, blah blah blah, BORING! C'mon, man, you could have at least TRIED to make her an interesting character! The by-the-numbers domestic-abuse thing was fucking idiotic too. So were the soulless sister and her friends, chilling by the pool in their tacky outfits--oh, they couldn't POSSIBLY fathom the complexity and depth of Lee's relationship, she's so BEYOND their petty bourgeois concecerns, blah blah blah.
Ditto poor Jeremy Davies, who's given the thankless task of playing someone who does NOTHING wrong other than fall in love, and we're supposed to feel superior to him because he's not "hep" to the s&m "jive" that's Lee & Spader's "bag." "Did I hurt you?" "(sigh) No." Ha ha ha ha ha, you fuckin' square, that'll teach you to actually be concerned about the feelings of the woman you love! She's too cool for you, you loser with your job at J.C. Penney! You've gotta learn to, like, actually FEEL things, and like cut through the BULLSHIT of SOCIETY and shit, and really truly LOVE, and DUH the way you do that is by allowing your employer to jerk off on your bare ass! I mean, GOD, Jeremy Davies, what a LOSER you are!
Maggie Ggyylleennhhaall also can't act. Particularly when you put her up against Spader, who as my wife has been saying can do more with his eyes than most actors can do with an entire script. Gyllenhaal, on the other hand, has a face with the emotional communicativity of a soggy marshmallow. At any given moment--well, let's take the immediate aftermath of the he-just-jerked-off-on-her scene by way of a for instance--you can't tell WHAT the fuck we're supposed to think she's feeling. Is she happy, sad, turned on, angry, disappointed, disgusted, what? There's NOTHING going on in that giant moonpie of a face, NOTHING. Although I do agree with the Missus that she has a cute speaking voice.
Spader's character was a mess too, and no amount of fine acting on his part can redeem that. Is he obsessive-compulsive or suffering from mental exhaustion? Is he a dedicated and successful lawyer or a basket case who occasionally destroys his own office and hides from his ex-wife in the closet? His decisions to sometimes berate Lee, sometimes do B&D with her, sometimes act like an actual concerned human being, sometimes act like a zombie, sometimes act like a run-of-the-mill mean boss, sometimes act like a loving boyfriend--who can say why he makes any of them? Pouring a whole bunch of contradictory shit into a character doesn't necessarily make him "complex"--it just makes your writing lazy.
I also don't buy the theory advanced by some fans of the film that this dom/sub relationship is something the lawyer just stumbled into and he's just as surprised as we are. A) The clear implication is that this has happened before with previous secretaries; B) He DOES happen to own various harnesses and an actual horse's saddle, not to mention the bale of hay he has her kneel on as he saddles her up.
The score sucked. I hate saying this, because god knows Angelo Badalamenti gets a lot of points for his work on Twin Peaks. But he just draped all this lugubrious, melodramatic gunk over every scene. Yuck.
The movie also gave almost no thought to what characters it created and what it did with them. Why build this big mystery about the paralegal, and the previous secretary, and the domineering wife, only to have them show up and plead with Lee in the middle of the string of concerned parties during that idiotic desk/hunger strike scene at the end? At one point there's an out-of-focus woman in the background while Lee is doing something or other. Who was she? Why was she there? Was nobody paying attention to these things? Any time you show something in a film, somebody has made a CHOICE to show that thing. You have a finite time and a finite space in cinema, and therefore everything that shows up on the screen is given a certain weight disproportionate to what it might have in real life. As Chekhov put it, "If you show a gun on the mantel in the first act, someone better fire it by the final act." We saw plenty of guns that no one fired, or that turned out to be not guns but bananas or shoes or bulletin boards.
And that scene was beyond retarded. You're telling me that nobody after Jeremy Davies--not mom, not dad, not sis, not brother-in-law, not spurned future parents-in-law whose heirloom wedding dress she's been pissing in, not the police, not the EMTs, not her old counselor, NOBODY--decided "you know what? fuck this, she's not handcuffed to the desk or anything, we're taking her out of here?" Also, the lawyer's sitting around his house the whole time. Nobody wanted to pay him a visit--not the cops, not the families, not the reporters, NOBODY? Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy. It was beyond stupid.
How could you decorate a hall that your clients walk up and down all the time with those typo-circled letters and the lingerie glamour shot Lee had taken for the lawyer? I think maybe somebody might have found that a little unusual.
Alright, we get it, you liked the pool scene from The Graduate! You also liked the running-from-the-wedding scene! You also liked the May-December romance angle! You also liked the plastic suburbanites! Whoop-dee-doo!
And that final shot of her staring at the audience was so condescending and patronizing it made my hair hurt. It's supposed be a challenge to us boozhwah squares in the audience--you think I'm weird, but look, I live in YOUR neighborhood, I'm a complete and fulfilled person, who are you to judge, blah blah fucking blah. But the thing is, the only people who are going to see a movie like this is people who ALREADY THINK all those things about the rest of America. So what reads on the surface as a challenging stare is really just a way to get the audience to feel smug and superior about the Wal-Mart-shopping SUV-driving missionary-position-using proles. How tedious.
Meanwhile, I'm not sure a deeply dysfunctional sexual relationship predicated on an employer taking advantage of his employee's deep-rooted self-destructive psychological problems makes for the great love story we're supposed to think this is, thank you very much. When you get right down to it, this is a guy who allowed this woman to sit in place for three days without eating or drinking, going to the bathroom on herself (I'd say "and freaking out her family" but they react to it like it's the teddy-bear picnic, because yeah, THAT makes sense, that's exactly how the family of an institutionalized cutter would react if she went on a hunger strike) rather than act. This doesn't make me think "wow, look how tough it is for him to loooove! How sweet!", it makes me think "grow the fuck up, douchebag." There's nothing romantic about destructive behavior. At least Closer recognized this. This movie is the anti-Closer. It's juvenalia in sophisticate drag.
All in all, this movie was not nearly as smart as it quite obviously thought it was. To quote Roger Ebert, I hated, hated, hated this movie.
Ahhhh, I feel much better. Next up, if you're very quiet about it: Batman Begins...?