December, 2002, Drama

Directed by:Steven Shainberg

Starring:James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal

How do you make a movie about sado-masochism without either descending into the sensational or turning the participants into disgusting deviants? Focus on the protagonists with a sufficient sense of humor and respect for things you don't have to understand to accept. This strange, decidedly off-beat film by director Steven Shainberg starts James Spader, (an attorney so tightly wound even his office plants have complexes) and newcomer Maggie Gyllenhall who delivers an appealing/appalling performance as the deeply wounded waif who becomes the only member of his office staff. Her Mom's an emotionally and physically abused wreck, Dad's a not successfully recovering alcoholic, and older Sis distains everything about her younger sibling. Maggie resorts to self-inflicted wounds to assure herself she's still alive, and becomes determined to gain employment as Spader's assistance because she senses he's as disturbed as she is.

The film takes place almost exclusively inside Spader's exotically decorated offices, and the set itself becomes an extension of the two personalities that occupy it. The resulting environment becomes hermetically sealed; the utter lack of reality in the furnishings suggesting the compulsiveness of characters who are bound, figuratively as well as literally, by their emotions. What ensues is a mating dance that's comedic, painful and romantic in unexpected turns. Because of the superior performances of the leads, surprisingly sympathetic as well. Improbable as it sounds, the viewer winds up rooting for these two vulnerable creatures to make something of their relationship, and the resolution of the demands they make on each other is at once both erotic and strangely apt. This one's certainly not for the occasional filmgoer, but its presentation of what most "straights" regard as sexual deviance emerges with real grace and even charm.

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