Generally favorable reviews - based on 39 Critics

Critic score distribution:
  1. Positive: 25 out of 39
  2. Negative: 5 out of 39
  1. 88
    Has enough genuine laughs to eliminate the potential twitters and snickers, and it treats Edward and Lee as people. We end up caring about what happens to these two individuals, even as we smile and laugh at their antics.
  2. 75
    Approaches the tricky subject of sadomasochism with a stealthy tread, avoiding the dangers of making it either too offensive, or too funny.
  3. The daring, funny and quirkily erotic Secretary examines power exchanges between consenting adults in a way that other movies have not managed without turning off swaths of the squeamish.
  4. 75
    Against all odds, director Steven Shainberg has managed to craft an oddly compassionate -- and often very funny -- tale of an emotionally symbiotic affair.
  5. Pulls off a neat trick: It's a poignant, sweet-natured love story in which what most of us would call kinky sex - domination, submission, some enthusiastic spanking - is featured prominently, but not pruriently.
  6. Reviewed by: Mike Clark
    Even without the surprise of seeing Spader going for laughs and getting them, Secretary is just too original to be ignored.
  7. Reviewed by: Ty Burr
    Love hurts in Secretary -- but not too much. It's not impossible to imagine adventurous young couples seeing this movie and rushing home to try out the handcuffs and paddles.
  8. Director Steven Shainberg and writer Erin Cressida Wilson argue that everyone deserves the love that makes them happiest, and that these two will remain miserable until they stumble upon each other.
  9. The movie works hard to be naughty, but its sub-David Lynch style doesn't quite click. Gyllenhaal is excellent and Spader effectively adds to his roster of creepy characters.
  10. The movie isn't painfully bad, something to be "fully experienced"; it's just tediously bad, something to be fully forgotten.
  11. 50
    What's hilarious about the build-up is that Secretary proves to be the softest, most middle-of-the-road movie that could have been made about this subject.
  12. Though I would agree it's original -- it's the first aboveground romance movie I've seen in which the heroine is repeatedly spanked, verbally tormented and tied to a chair by her lover--- it's not an experience I much enjoyed.
  13. 25
    The characters in Secretary never feel the least bit human. Their quirks, sexual and otherwise, are all on the surface. Inside, where it counts, nobody's home.
  14. It provokes nothing but yawns, and the sex it explores is stuff everybody knows about and says, "So what?"
  15. 70
    Secretary, like the type of relationship it explores, is not for everybody. But it does what good films do best; that is to provoke us, push our buttons, make us think and maybe even entertain us in the process.
  16. Reviewed by: Ken Fox
    Before it takes a sudden turn and devolves into a bizarre sort of romantic comedy, Steven Shainberg's adaptation of Mary Gaitskill's harrowing short story about dominance, submission and the twisted sexual dynamics of the work place is a brilliantly played, deeply unsettling experience.
  17. Reviewed by: Clint Morris
    A bizarre flick. It moves a little apprehensively between comedy, drama and then, erotic romance, with the central players' excellent performances (especially newcomer Gyllenhaal) suffering because of the film’s indecisions.
  18. Reviewed by: Staff (Not Credited)
    There's a word for an actress who can go from nervous to winsome to raunchy to romantic in a heartbeat and get you to adore her the whole time. The word is star.
  19. Secretary is one of the best of a growing strain of daring films -- "Bliss," "The Lifestyle," "Satin Rouge" -- that argue that any sexual relationship that doesn't hurt anyone and works for its participants is a relationship that is worthy of our respect.
  20. Reviewed by: David Edelstein
    Most love stories are bland and generalized. This one takes you deep inside the dance.
  21. 80
    It's a liberating, kindhearted picture, one whose ending brings with it the feeling that something has finally been shaken free. How comfortable you feel with that is completely up to you.
  22. Reviewed by: Graham Robinson
    Secretary's treatment of female sexuality is as matter-of-fact as its handling of self-mutilation, and the key to both is Gyllenhaal's remarkable performance.
  23. 80
    A film of startling humor and feeling. For that, director Steven Shainberg, who co-wrote the script with Erin Cressida Wilson, owes much to two remarkable performances.
  24. 80
    The unnecessarily emphatic ending suggests that Secretary's makers are a bit anxious to demonstrate they've whipped a potentially grotesque, spanks-for-the-memories scenario into the season's most romantic love story -- which is, in fact, what they've done.
  25. For all the dolorous trim, Secretary is a genial romance that maintains a surprisingly buoyant tone throughout, notwithstanding some of the writers' sporadic dips into pop Freudianism.
  26. A wholesome self-help fable about the unlocking of shame and its magical transformation into pleasure and personal liberation.
  27. Reviewed by: Todd McCarthy
    In a very demanding role demanding a vast emotional range from clueless innocent to confident role player and emotional adventurer, Gyllenhaal is outstanding.
  28. Reviewed by: Richard Leiby
    Initially cold and perverse to its core, the film transmutes into something warm and uplifting. Normal, even.
  29. 80
    Wicked little black comedy.
  30. 70
    There's something appealing about an unapologetic love story set in an office that's only a few clicks off from looking like a fetish dungeon, and Spader and Gyllenhaal make sure that the romance, kinks and all, carries the day.
  31. Secretary is deeply conventional: Edward and Lee accept their bondage as the way to a more fulfilling life. It's the filmmakers who need to be spanked.
  32. Reviewed by: Richard Schickel
    Writer-director Shainberg seems to be aiming for a dark comedy, but mostly his movie is coy without being funny, ugly without being truly transgressive, stupid when it needs to be smart.
  33. In a movie as unrewarding as this, there's really only one burning question: When does the spanking begin?
  34. Secretary is a testament to the importance of tonality in telling a story.
  35. 58
    Director Steven Shainberg makes something draggy out of something that wants to be light. It's got wit, but it's also earnest, and in proportion to those two traits it wins and loses you.
  36. Reviewed by: David Ansen
    Manages to be simultaneously subversive and sweet.
  37. Lee's journey of the body and soul is something else. Maggie Gyllenhaal makes it strangely touching, a revelation.
  38. The problem with Secretary isn't that it is offensive or unnerving -- although you get the idea the filmmakers hoped it might be at least one of those. The problem is that the story is slow-moving and dull.
  39. 40
    Not meant to be realistic; it was shot by the director Steven Shainberg in a slow, dreamy neo-De Palma style and in candy colors, and Gyllenhaal has a Kewpie-doll silliness that almost makes the naughty parts of the movie fun. [23 Sept 2002, p. 98]
User Score

Generally favorable reviews- based on 72 Ratings

User score distribution:
  1. Positive: 20 out of 22
  2. Negative: 1 out of 22
  1. Sep 5, 2014
    Well, as a secretary myself in an obscure company that makes bobble heads I can identify with the kind of situations this movie talks about.Well, as a secretary myself in an obscure company that makes bobble heads I can identify with the kind of situations this movie talks about. Having to retype a letter all day because I keep making mistakes because the only reason I have the job is because I'm pretty not because I'm able to do anything properly behind a desk is just like the movie. I also get my bottom smacked when I make mistakes. It happens at least once a week. Far from it being a crude sexist experience it can be the highlight of my day-especially when its done in front of other people with my skirt off showing my bum in pantyhose to anyone in the room while my boss fondles himself with his free hand. What more could a girl want. Full Review »
  2. Oct 7, 2012
    Despite it's unusual skew, Secretary is actually one of the most romantic movies I've seen. Sure, the characters are complete S&M nutjobs, butDespite it's unusual skew, Secretary is actually one of the most romantic movies I've seen. Sure, the characters are complete S&M nutjobs, but hey, they need happiness too. It's also a fun ride from start to finish because you're never sure where Gyllenhaal's and Spader's relationship is going. I honestly thought he might kill her! Kudos to both the main actors for top-notch performances, too. Full Review »
  3. Jul 21, 2012
    In Secretary, Maggie Gyllenhaal gives the performance of her career as Lee Holloway, a meek and introverted young woman who gets a job as aIn Secretary, Maggie Gyllenhaal gives the performance of her career as Lee Holloway, a meek and introverted young woman who gets a job as a secretary for an oddball small-time lawyer (James Spader), which leads to a less-than-conventional sexual relationship. It's a sweet and engaging tale of two cripplingly shy people, who are unable to communicate with each other at all other than though BDSM. The film insightfully discusses intimacy, desire, sexual fetishism and depression, and manages to strike just the right balance between darkness and light-heartedness in writer/director Steven Shainberg's brilliant screenplay and complex characterisation. Both Lee and E. Edward Grey are interesting, layered and fully-rounded characters with real (if unusual) chemistry, and it's genuinely involving to see how their relationship progresses and how they conquer their fears and evolve as people throughout the film. It is only the last few minutes of the film that the narrative begins to wobble, delivering an ending that is a little too slushy and formulaic for this otherwise pleasantly original film. Even with this jarring change in tone in the final act, Secretary is a quirky, well-written and entertaining comedy-drama that bravely tackles a taboo subject in a way that only independent cinema can. Full Review »