It’s a woefully familiar situation when the dramatic arts try to engage with current events, only to falter because they arrive before audiences are willing to confront the real-deal traumas they seek to explore. “Too soon,” say the critics, as if engaged filmmakers were just a bunch of ambulance-chasing opportunists. But in the case of Australian director Kitty Green’s “The Assistant” — an exasperatingly low-key look at gender dynamics in the workplace that began as an exposé of sexual misconduct on college campuses and morphed into a commentary on the Harvey Weinstein scandal — the world is more than ready, and it’s more a case of “too little, too late.”
Yes, society must push itself to understand how an entire industry could ignore — much less accept — predatory and misogynistic practices. But we can’t pretend that the evidence wasn’t hidden in plain sight. More daring films than this have addressed the subject at least as far back as 1924’s single-reel silent “The Casting Couch,” boiling up to overt critique in films such as “The Lonely Lady” and “Phantom of the Paradise.” In 2000, Asia Argento released “Scarlet Diva,” which included a scene in which an overweight director pressures an actress to give him a massage in his hotel room. This is no time for subtlety, and yet Green’s film feels so restrained, you’d think she was afraid of being sued for slander.
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The movie concerns a day in the life of Jane (Julia Garner), a New York production company assistant, opening outside her Queens apartment, where a towncar waits to drive her in to the office. She’s the first to arrive, beginning a day of far-from-glamorous tasks: making photocopies, logging her boss’s expenses, opening his mail (which includes an invitation to an event hosted by the president) — responsibilities that are robotically depicted in tight, locked-down shots. Jane asks the occasional question, but mostly tries to keep a poker face around the office, which she shares with two other (male) assistants whose behavior alternates between patronizing and disrespectful.
Unfortunately, Jane’s discretion puts the responsibility on audiences to read between the lines of her mounting fear and discomfort, which “Ozark” star Garner plays with exquisite subtlety. For those who appreciated the woe-is-me fireworks of “The Devil Wears Prada,” in which a put-upon young assistant pulled back the curtain on her nightmare boss (based, in that case, on Vogue editor Anna Wintour), Green’s approach will feel flat and anti-dramatic.
The Australian director, who has previously worked in the nonfiction format (“Casting JonBenet,” “Ukraine Is Not a Brothel”), based her screenplay on interviews with former and current assistants in many industries. In the press notes, she describes the film as “a composite of the thousands of stories I’d heard, seen through the eyes of one woman.” So why does the result seem so generic? Though it may seem counterintuitive, specifics have a way of making stories feel universal.
While clearly inspired by much of what we’ve learned from #MeToo testimonies about how Weinstein operated, the movie takes place in a bland downtown office populated mostly by one-dimensional employees. Balding and jowly actor Tony Torn, who’s credited as Jane’s boss, is never seen, but unmistakably Harvey-like in his surly off-screen mistreatment of the staff — and yet, such abusive behavior is hardly unique to him, which is one of the film’s more chilling points.
Showbiz jobs tend to be extremely high stress, where supervisors act as if they’re curing cancer and pressure their employees to behave accordingly: They expect instant responses to email, refuse to acknowledge that their underlings have lives beyond work, and want everything done yesterday. All Green had to do to make the film more engaging was give Jane one unreasonably difficult job to do by the end of the day — some kind of distraction to drive the plot, while everything else could be moved to the background.
While hardly glamorous, the perk of being chauffeured daily to an entry-level gig is a luxury few assistants enjoy — although it’s hardly akin to the treatment a pretty new hire (Kristine Froseth) gets, flown in from Boise, Idaho, and put up at a posh hotel. That situation raises red flags for Jane, who’s been picking up clues — quite literally, in the case of an earring she discovered that morning on the carpet of her boss’s office — that the man she works for is using the power of his position for sex.
Jane doesn’t have proof, but the indications are manifest, backed by knowing jokes from her colleagues. “I wouldn’t sit there,” they laugh, referring to the couch audiences have seen Jane disinfecting earlier in the film. It’s an open secret, she realizes, and yet there’s no one for Jane to talk to about her mounting discomfort. This feels like a flaw in the film, since it denies the character much of a life or personality outside of the office, apart from two personal calls she makes that day, one placed to each of her parents. Even the addition of a roommate or boyfriend would have helped give her someone to commiserate with.
In the real world, assistants talk. However much silence and loyalty may be prized in the film and television industries, everyone knows that assistants know everything. That’s part of what made the Weinstein situation so shocking: Rumors of misconduct (including allegations of assault) had been swirling for years, but airtight nondisclosure agreements made it virtually impossible for victims to come forward. “The Assistant” grapples with the way that those who don’t speak up become passive enablers.
In one scene, a stunning blonde actress (Dutch model Bregje Heinen) awaits a private meeting with Jane’s boss, and the young woman is sent in to greet her, a comforting ally in the predominately male office, thereby lowering her defenses. Late in the day, Jane gathers the nerve to register a complaint with HR. To an extent, everything in “The Assistant” hinges on this scene, because Jane is doing something too few have. She’s speaking up. That’s what #MeToo is about: solidarity among those who’ve suffered too long in silence. Ideally, “The Assistant” will get people talking. The world needs movies like this, but it needs for them to be dynamic, dramatic and more empowering overall.