Review: THE ASSISTANT

The sexually abused and harassed ones are having their day; as are their abusers.

Me Too, Time’s Up, books, movies, TV shows – we’ve read the bestsellers and seen real-life pervs get their comeuppance in the news, then later,  on TV and in the movies. Truly despicable predators such as  Fox News executive Roger Ailes has been the subject of one movie, a 7-part TV-drama, AND a documentary.  AND a bestseller.

Occasionally a suspected abuser gets away, by dying (Jeffrey Epstein), or by just being untouchable (Prince Andrew) and we still don’t know what will happen to Harvey Weinstein, but to many  there is an optimistic sense that a very real problem is being dealt with – slowly, but steadily. 

In “The Assistant”, writer/director Kitty Green tackles the Hollywood culture of sexual abuse from a perspective seldom seen – the enablers.

The Assistant, played by Julia Garner, is a recent college graduate, the very last hired, and so the lowest in the formal hierarchy of a high-pressure, Miramax-type film company.  Yes, Miramax was Mr. Weinstein’s company, run by Himself and his brother Bob. 

The Assistant, nameless in the movie but listed as “Jane” in the credits,  is driven to her place of work in the dark morning hours. There, she turns on lights, clears off food remnants, empties water bottles, scrubs – not the floor, but her boss’s stained couch. She finds a lost earring. This is menial work – is she a glorified custodian? A simple dogsbody?

No, she’s an important fixer.  She balances schedules, makes plane reservations and hotel bookings, acts like a childminder, tends to somebody’s broken vacuum cleaner. Comforts the boss’s hysterical wife. “It’s not your fault, I’ll fix it” is her go-to phone refrain. 

Contact with her fellow workers is harder to establish. Five weeks on the job, Jane’s small talk is so small it’s not even heard. She tries to be polite but comes off as annoyingly compliant. First to work every day, you’d think she’d hang up her bulky winter coat on one of the few pegs offered at the office.  Instead, she stuffs the coat, and a voluminous scarf, in an empty desk drawer.   Julia Garner is so efficient at diminishing Jane it comes as no surprise that the two slightly more established assistants who share her cramped office  (they are reading screenplays! dealing with Authors!)  pelt her with paper balls when they want her attention.

They do pity her, though, when the Boss – referred to, reverentially,  as He, His, and Him throughout the movie – hollers angry reprimands on the phone.  Having been through this abuse themselves,  they help the terrified girl compose the expected email apology. In return, she gets creepy messages like “I’m tough on you because I’m gonna make you great!”

Jane’s toxic work situation is further inflamed when she is ordered to handle the arrival of an apple-cheeked teen, a waitress from Boise, Idaho that the Bossman has flown in and wants to be installed as his mistress at an upscale hotel.  And while she’s at it, Jane is to train Miss Idaho how to answer phones, how to use the copying machine.  How to be an assistant, in fact.

Unsure of what to do – Jane has no confidants at work or in her private life – she turns to the HR department to report her Boss’s unethical behavior towards what she suspects is a minor. A smarmy inhuman resource rep played by Matthew MacFadyen (best known as the reprehensible in-law in “Succession”) doesn’t see the problem.  Is Jane jealous? Concerned she might be “next”? No worries, Jane is NOT the Boss’s type. Her stories of demeaning custodian work find no purchase either. “This is a job everybody wants. I have 400 people waiting to take your job. Are you sure you want me to file this complaint?”

If Jane says yes, she might save a young girl from a sexual predator. And sleep well at night.

If she says no, she can continue her dream of becoming a movie producer. And, turning as complicit as her coworkers, maybe she’ll finally be accepted by them?

“The Assistant” is a short movie, barely 90 minutes long.  It’s claustrophobic, taking place in a very small office where Jane spends what looks like 16-hour workdays, scurrying from desk to copying room, to kitchenette where unhealthy cereals and microwaveable await.

Julia Garner is an excellent plain Jane assistant, taking on the hue of the production’s pale green.

One of the executive producers of “The Assistant” is Abigail E. Disney, Roy E.’s grand-daughter.  Last year, when she demanded better pay for the workers at Disneyworld and Disneyland, she became the proud recipient of the ClassTraitor award.

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