Synopsis: A searing look at a day in the life of an assistant to a powerful executive as she grows increasingly aware of the insidious abuse that threatens every aspect of her position.
Stars: Julia Garner, Matthew Macfadyen, Kristine Froseth, Makenzie Leigh, Noah Robbins, Dagmara Domińczyk, Purva Bedi
Director: Kitty Green
Running Length: 85 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: A film like The Assistant was bound to arrive eventually. Ever since the Harvey Weinstein scandal brought to light the unspoken predatory behavior beyond Hollywood’s closed doors there have been countless news articles, think pieces, and non-fiction works that have gone deep into how things got as bad as they did. Yet for as many of these real-life dealings in sensational exposés there was going to come a time when a fictionalized account would make it way to screens and I was bracing for a squirm-inducing bit of discomfort. The trailer for The Assistant is cut to look like a razor sharp thriller and even the log-line promises “a searing look” at a day in the life of our titular character.
So…why isn’t The Assistant more affecting or more substantive? Writer/director Kitty Green certainly has decent designs on her compact story told over the course of one seemingly ordinary day but whatever she’s trying to say about the current state of the Time’s Up or #MeToo movement gets lost in muddled delivery. It’s never clear if this is an indictment on the industry at large or intended to cast a withering look on those that see troubling things happen but refuse to say anything. Instead of being a modest yet compelling voice that adds to the proposed change the industry needs, The Assistant winds up becoming a frustrating part of the problem with its resolute adherence to staid storytelling.
Jane (Julia Garner, Grandma) works for a high-profile movie exec at an unnamed studio and seems to have gotten used to her surroundings. She arrives before dawn and sets up for the day; organizing schedules, preparing coffee, and steeling herself for her boisterous male peers that routinely slough off the more mundane tasks to her plate. We never see the boss, only hearing his muffled bark on the phone or through walls when he’s berating his staff but his presence hangs over the office like a dark cloud. Aside from the occasional celebratory (Patrick Wilson pops in playing himself and seeing that his wife Dagmara Domińczyk has a smaller role you wonder if they aren’t friends of the production), a parade of women flow through the doors during business hours, with no one batting an eye if some of the more exotic beauties leave slightly disheveled, unable to make eye contact on their way out.
When a pretty but clearly unqualified girl fresh off the turnip truck shows up saying she’s been hired by the boss as a new assistant to work alongside Jane, Jane’s reaction and next steps are startling for two reasons. The first is that she recognizes just how little importance is placed on the work she’s currently doing and it’s somehow only dawning on her now that hard work in the industry only gets you so far. The real lesson, and best sequence of the movie, is a scene between Jane and an HR leader (Matthew Macfadyen, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms) who she has turned to with her concerns. Garner and Macfadyen both play the dynamics of this conversation well and it takes you in directions you may not initially guess. Green’s script may not give Garner the kind of speech you want her to have but there’s something telling in what’s not being said between the two characters.
If only the rest of The Assistant had been as finely tuned as this one scene, it may have amounted to more than a small distraction that further illustrates that men in power routinely abuse their position. I wish Green had gone further in the forum she was given and had been able to create some more depth in the other secondary characters that fill out the rest of the cast. Aside from Garner and Macfadyen, everyone else seems to be barely etched and, consequently, played without much grounding. There’s something to the structure Green has created but it’s in the building of the finished product where things just fall flat.