Some have referred to filmmaker Kitty Green’s The Assistant as the Harvey Weinstein movie, a first shot at dramatizing the fury that sparked the #MeToo movement. But to actually watch the film, a muted drama as much about crappy bosses and shitty workplaces than any specific abuses committed by Weinstein, it’s hard not to be a little bit underwhelmed despite an acknowledgement of this movie’s importance.
Julia Garner, a terrific actress with an impassive face and subtle demeanor, is perfectly cast as Jane, the weary, put-upon assistant to a big shot Hollywood mogul. Taking place over a scant 24 hours, the heaviness that Jane is feeling seems like it has been mounting for years. She’s only been at the company for a couple of months with dreams of someday becoming a producer. Instead, she washes dishes, sends emails, makes copies, and fields angry phone calls from her boss’s wife, who takes all of her marital frustrations out on the poor assistant. She endures patronizing comments from her two male colleagues, who guide her in the best ways to apologize when she makes a mistake, or dares step even a little bit out of line. It’s like a horror movie, one where the slasher is never seen and kills his victims’ souls with ugly emails and threatening phone calls.
Bringing her documentarian experience to a fictionalized take on a timely issue, Green keeps the audience at a distance, at too much of a distance, frankly. While we feel for Julia, who watches with cold, dead eyes as one attractive, vulnerable young woman becomes acquainted with her boss, or gets hired out of nowhere like the pretty-and-unskilled intern (Kristine Froseth) from Boise, Green’s choice to remain so impartial also keeps her from exploring the topic with enough depth. As a slice-of-life drama, The Assistant does show us what it can be like inside the high-stress world of an entry level employee at a major studio, during a time before the Weinstein scandals broke. For Jane, she takes in all she sees, but the conflict is always there. Does she risk losing everything by filing a complaint over what she thinks she knows, or does she keep quiet and become silent party to the abuses? The evidence she has is minimal; most of it just thinks she overhears from others, like jokes about her boss’ casting couch (“I wouldn’t sit there”), or the discovery of the new hire’s earring in a peculiar place.
There are also little contradictions along the way that Green could’ve fleshed out and given the film some personality. In a nightmarish scene, Jane takes her suspicions to HR, with Matthew Macfadyen as the duplicitous rep before her. After lowering Jane’s defenses with easygoing charm and platitudes, he accuses her of being jealous of the pretty new girl who is being lavished with attention she never received . It’s a charge that, on its face, isn’t entirely false. He does this before telling Jane that she’s not her boss’ type, a line meant to comfort but hits like a cold slap of indignity.
All of this is presented in sterile, washed-out fashion that is just interesting enough to hold you for the film’s 80-minute runtime, and you’ll wonder about Jane for some time after thanks to Garner’s haunting performance. But what you’ll also consider is why Green fails to make a stronger statement, or present the film in a way that assures people will see it and then spread the word. It’s valuable to get this inside-the-office view of the torment driven young women must have gone through, but The Assistant had the potential to say more than it does.