Low-key drama examines office politics in #MeToo era
The Assistant (2020)
Directed by Kitty Green
Cast: Julia Garner, Matthew Macfadyen, Makenzie Leigh
Buried somewhere deep inside The Assistant, documentary filmmaker Kitty Green’s first scripted feature (after 2013’s Ukraine Is Not a Brothel and 2017 Casting JonBenet), is a combustible, angry feminist screed for the #MeToo era clamoring to get out. Unfortunately, it’s cloaked inside a spare, observational, fly-on-the-wall drama so bogged down in the banalities of everyday corporate life that its squeaky voice can barely be heard above the thrum of an office copy machine.
Green’s film concentrates exclusively on quiet blonde in a gray turtleneck Jane (Emmy winning Julia Garner from “Ozark”). There’s barely a shot in the film where she’s not in frame. But for the longest time, we simply have to take it on faith that there’s a reason we’re staring at her so intently. We gather from the accumulating evidence that Jane works as an assistant (hence, the title) at the New York office of some powerful, unnamed film industry mogul. It’s as if she works for—I don’t know, let’s pull a name out of the air—Harvey Weinsten. We watch as Jane goes about her day in frightened, new-
Jane, who is at the office before anyone else and leaves after everyone else, appears to have nothing resembling a personal life. In fact, she never even seems to leave the office, working day and night and subsisting off of microwave food. The only time she exits the building is to run an errand for someone. Also, every single person she interacts with seems like a curt, self-serving asshole. But hey, that’s show business, huh?
If The Assistant were a documentary, it would be deadly dull. As a drama it’s … well, it’s still pretty dull. For near-interminable stretches, no dialogue of any consequence occurs. And for the most part, nothing actually happens to Jane on the day we spend observing her. It’s not like anyone really screams at her or actively abuses her or visibly harasses her. They mostly just ignore her. Few people in the office even seem to know she exists. It’s as if she’s invisible. Because she’s an assistant, you see.
So does our heroine eventually lose her shit and start killing people with a Swingline stapler? Does she engage in a kinky sadomasochistic affair with her married boss? Does she at least go get a new job? No such luck. She mostly just makes more copies. Occasionally Jane intercepts angry phone calls from her big boss’ wife (or is it his mistress?). At least twice she’s required to type out a formal apology letter to the man upstairs. (The ease with which her coworkers coach her on it shows just what a daily task that is.)
All in all, The Assistant isn’t interested in histrionics. About 45 minutes into the film, though, things finally come to a head. Between trips to the copy machine, it slowly dawns on Jane that the new “assistant” her boss has hired (an “objectively pretty” waitress from Utah) is only on staff so the boss can sleep with her. By all the indications we’re privy to, the man in charge is a predatory pervert employing a casting couch as freely as—just clutching at straws here, choosing a name at random—Harvey Weinstein (allegedly).
After an interminable amount of time, Jane screws up her last shreds of mouse-like courage and tries to report the lech to the higher ups in HR. But after sitting in front of a condescending dude in a suit like a schoolgirl in front of the principal, going around and around in dialogue circles for 15 minutes or so, it’s clear nobody cares in the slightest about what is or is not going on at this company. It’s a man’s man’s world, baby.
Garner tries hard to give her put-upon character some sort of inner life—stammering and insecure on the outside with the slightest hint of a flinty center. Green’s film probably intends for her to be an admirable figure, a tiny cog fighting against the overwhelming man machine in which she finds herself. But her reticence to do much of anything over the course of the film makes her a frustrating character on which to focus. Is she genuinely interested in rocking the boat, or would she rather just look the other way (like everybody else) and preserve her (objectively shitty) job?
There are moments when The Assistant’s various shadow punches land a painful jab. How hard the film hits may be directly proportional to how much you’ve been affected by this exact sort of sexist environment. (“I’m so hard on you,” says Jane’s invisible boss in a faux-apologetic e-mail, “Because I’m trying to make you better.”) As a snapshot of the banal neglect that fosters sexist attitudes in corporate America, this film hits close to home. As an exposé of sexual predation in the #MeToo era, however, The Assistant is almost painfully timid. Sure, it’s a film about the damage that silence can do. I get that. But silence doesn’t make for a particularly compelling drama. What we need at this point is an angry, screaming manifesto. What we get is a sad girl eating a plastic-wrapped muffin all alone in a corner coffee shop late at night and feeling sad. That’s just … sad.
Theaters are closed until further notice
But if you would like a snapshot to help you remember how things used to be…