The first narrative film to capture the Weinstein era removes everything salacious about the subject.
“The Assistant” does more than that, though.
It bleaches out the characters, motivations, drama and tawdry details. Heck, just about everything that makes a movie worth your while gets the heave ho, too.
What’s left? A series of subtle but clever tells, and a movie that ends without leaving so much as a molecule of a mark.
“Ozark” standout Julia Garner is Jane, a low-level employee at a nameless movie studio. She fetches coffee, grabs lunch for her colleagues and scoops up any trash laying around the office.
We know this because in an 87 minute film writer/director Kitty Green spends nearly 14 minutes showing us these mundane tasks. This critic didn’t go to film school, but here’s betting you can capture Jane’s ennui in a fraction of that time.
From there we see a quasi toxic work environment in bloom. Everyone is afraid of the Boss, who never actually appears on camera. Jane’s male co-workers quietly coach her on how to apologize when she doesn’t heed the boss’ whims.
It’s the closest thing to humanity the film offers, if you don’t count some random banter between Jane and her parents.
There’s another layer of the corporate structure meant to grab our attention. Green shrewdly ladles out the clues:
- A nasty call from the boss’ wife
- Colleagues afraid of their own shadows
- A curious appearance by a fetching young woman
That minimalist approach could work, especially given the gross alternatives – the Harvey stand-in chasing starlets around a hotel room.
We’re spared those indignities, beyond a foul casting couch allusion.
Instead, “The Assistant” reduces the Weinstein saga to muffled cries of desperation, the kind offices in other lines of work might inspire, too. To paraphrase “This Is Spinal Tap,” Green’s film goes to 1. Maybe 2, to be kind.
That leaves what, exactly? “The Assistant” is a snooze on every level, lacking the nuance a story of this style demands. The bulk of the action takes place in a drab office with no visual spark. Garner isn’t given much to do, or say. She mopes around, containing the sass from her breakout Netflix role.
If she changed her expression once over the film’s brief running time this critic missed it.
“Everyone was getting abused in the movie and they didn’t even know it.” https://t.co/UgH6nE38Op
— Fast Company (@FastCompany) February 4, 2020
A few potent moments wriggle out of this mess. Most notably, Jane’s colleague assures her she has little to fear. She’s not the boss’ “type.”
The word hangs in the air, evoking the power office predators have over their prey.
Jane seems like a decent soul, a fine vehicle to illuminate workplace harassment. Her parents sound awfully Midwestern in the best of ways, too. So where’s her inner life? The film is in a mad dash to reach its absurdly still finale.
What’s left to say about “The Assistant?” Indie films admirably give us clues to bigger emotions, the kind mainstream movies underline and highlight. This? We’re scrambling for something to keep us engaged, to make the characters and scenes matter.
When the film ends without a morsel on our plate, it’s like a slap in the face.
HiT or Miss: “The Assistant” downplays the horrors of the Weinstein scandal so dramatically we’re left with cultural vapors… and little else.