Anybody remember Shannon Tweed? She made a career out of thinly veiled softcore, straight-to-video features lingering almost shamefully on the bottom shelf of more reputable video stores. You know the rental huts without that curtained off back room sporting three glowing X’s above the door. Secretary is a smarter, more motivated film than Tweed’s better works, but does a fine job of sharing the same voyeuristic tendencies.

I say that because the real message behind Secretary is simply that the best way to solve mental problems is with kinky sex. So it’s no surprise that when young Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is released from a mental institution she ends up employed by a lawyer with a sadomasochistic sex fetish. Thank god for that, since her return to the real world is hardly bump free. Plain, mousy Lee re-enters her family’s lives to discover her father is an even more abusive, slovenly drunk than ever before. Her mother is even deeper in denial and in desperate need of attention. It’s not long before stress drives Lee right back to the self-mutilation that landed her in the nuthouse to begin with.

Her new job as secretary for demanding small-office lawyer Edward Grey becomes sort of an escape from the madness of her other life. At first Grey is simply demanding, maybe even obsessive. Yet in between rants he’s suddenly sympathetic and seems to put forward a genuine effort to help her. Eventually though, his efforts to aid Lee in self improvement take a left turn and end up with her gleefully bent over his desk receiving bare-bottomed spankings. His dominating treatment is somehow just what she needs, and her submissive, orgasmically joyful acceptance of his kinky abuse satisfies the shameful feelings that he has been hiding inside.

For what it is, Secretary is well cast, with Spader slipping easily into the layered and demanding persona of the conflicted Mr. Grey and Maggie Gyllenhaal throwing down just the right mix of mousy submissiveness and innocent eager beaver. Give director Steven Shainberg some credit, he finds a nice dynamic between the nearly humorous and attempts at the nearly insightful as he explores these two characters with them. In particular I liked the way he avoids really bogging down in sentiment, flinching away just in time from the film’s more disturbing underbelly to keep us from the tendency to cry.

But for me, the problem is simply that Secretary spends a lot of time trying to convince us that their sadomasochistic lifestyle has some deep seated and profound meaning. That somehow this film isn’t just a softcore, office-kink fest, but a serious and heartfelt look into what drives people to need this sort of lifestyle. Frankly, I was never fully convinced and found myself wishing things could go back to the shallow, meaningless softcore days of Shannon Tweed. At least those movies were honest. Secretary thinks it has something important to deliver, but beyond finding reasons for James Spader to beat the tar out of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s cute little bottom I just couldn’t buy in.