The Assistant, 2020, 2 stars

Assistant  stretched thin

Workplace-abuse story is threadbare

Julia Garner stars in The Assistant. (image copyright Bleecker Street Media / Cinereach / Forensic Films)

Exclusive to MeierMovies, January 30, 2020

In Steven Spielberg’s 1971 feature debut, Duel, David (every) Mann is stalked on a highway by an unseen killer, a nameless driver of a Needlenose truck.

Fast-forward to today, and another filmmaker, Kitty Green, is showcasing an anonymous menace in her narrative feature debut. But instead of using a steel 18-wheeler, this peril is positioned at the helm of a powerful New York film company, using his perch to harass and intimidate all his employees, and sexually abuse women.

Sound familiar? It should, as the company chairman is a thinly veiled Harvey Weinstein. But because he – and most of the other characters – are never called by name, the story takes on an everywoman quality. (Cue the Duel connection again.) Even the central figure, a junior assistant to the chairman, is listed in the credits as just “Jane.” (Last name Doe?) And by focusing like a laser – a really slow laser – on Jane (Julia Garner, The Perks of Being a Wallflower) over the course of one workday, writer-director Green (who has addressed female exploitation in her documentaries) allows us to experience the sadness, frustration, fatigue and, ultimately, resignation that all mistreated employees feel, whether they are victims of Weinstein or simply stuck in debasing jobs that mentally grind them into dust over time.

Witnessing what she perceives as the chairman’s sexual misconduct, Jane seeks out a human-relations employee (David Matthew Macfadyen, Anna Karenina). But the harassment is shoved back in her face.

“I don’t think you have anything to worry about,” he tells her. “You’re not his type.”

If you desire drama, you’ll get it in that scene. But the rest of the movie is emotionally muted and stretched thin, the product of a socially relevant but disappointingly underdeveloped script. At just 87 minutes, it still feels too long, too focused on the tedium of Jane’s day. There’s even a 20-second take of Jane mixing a drink in a blender. (Perhaps Rooney Mara could have used it to wash down that pie she binged in a similarly paced scene from A Ghost Story.)

Like A Ghost Story, The Assistant demands patience. If you stick with them, both films have something important to say, though on vastly different subjects. But Green’s film fails because the story it presents and the truths it offers are not developed enough for a full-length film. Quiet and contemplative to a fault, the movie is often, frankly, boring, and its illusion of realism is compromised by its spare production design, despite Garner’s sympathetic, if slightly undercooked, performance.

Weinstein and his ilk deserve what Roger Ailes got in Bombshell, and then some. Regrettably, you won’t find that in this film. But The Assistant does give us a glimpse of heartbreak when Jane’s dad, in a phone conversation, expresses excitement over his daughter’s new job, which she had hoped would make her film-producer dreams come true. Proud of her “great opportunity,” he asks her, “Are you having fun?”

“Um, it’s OK,” she responds awkwardly, hiding the abuse from her father and herself. “It’s just stressful.”

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