Jane’s work day begins and ends at night. New York isn’t just dark when she takes a cab from her apartment in Astoria to an office in Tribeca where she works as an assistant for an unnamed film production company — it’s silent, shellacked, reflecting whatever the streetlamps reveal by their frozen lights. It’s whatever you want it to be. As she approaches her place of business the streets sprout cobblestones and the storefronts widen until they are nothing but glass. These solemn opening images of Kitty Green’s debut narrative feature film The Assistant, which hews close to recent college graduate Jane for the duration of its 90 minutes as she sets about cleaning up a range of physical and psychic messes for her company, feel more like the shadow of a day than the beginning of one. Jane has been here before and she is already tired — for a film you go into knowing it’s based heavily on the Harvey Weinstein scandal, that’s an appropriate way to start.
It’s now been a little more than two years since the first allegations against Weinstein detailing decades of degrading and violent sexual behavior towards women, many of them his colleagues in the entertainment industry, first ruined his name, forcing him to abdicate his perch as one of Hollywood’s most powerful producers. The scandal has not yet resulted in a court conviction, though at the time of this writing he is on trial in the Manhattan Supreme Court for five charges, including rape. The film is set sometime before the general public came to know of all this, but not so very long ago. It’s particular about the details of office drudgery, but doesn’t name names or reference the outside world — even Jane’s boss is only an unidentified approximation of Wenstein, always mumbling with his back to his employees. Inside, Jane’s office looks like that of the midtown men’s magazine where I interned nearly a decade ago, the one where locking myself in the storage closet by accident came as a relief — but it’s plain and polished enough to be any office of today or tomorrow, too. It’s in this labyrinth of stinging overhead lighting that Jane (played by Julia Garner) confronts in the course of her day the predatory nature of her boss and the complicity of her co-workers in allowing his behavior to continue. She notices some of her boss’s checks have left the recipients’ name blank and that he’s getting an awful lot of syringes filled with erectile dysfunction meds delivered to the office. Next thing you know he’s setting up a hotel rendezvous with an alarmingly young, beautiful, and inexperienced new assistant, and Jane’s lying to his wife about it. This is a contemporary film rooted in the dirt of a particular scandal, and like Bombshell (a cinematic retelling of Roger Ailes’ ousting from his Fox News chairmanship amid sexual misconduct allegations) and The Morning Show (a TV series inspired in part by the downfall of disgraced former Today anchor Matt Lauer) it can also be considered an appraisal of “Me Too.”
What’s particularly gutting is the film’s depiction of the office’s community as a sort of makeshift family, one that’s overwhelmingly invested in maintaining its structure.
Topicality in a film, rather than confer the weight its producers are no doubt betting on, will often present with a deflating lightness. What lesson from the past can it unearth, what reminder of the work before us as a culture, when it is imitating a drama unfolding in real time? If it’s accurate, how will it differ from last year’s headlines — and if a more interpretive approach is employed, how to avoid making a ghost of its living material? How will it speak in its own voice when its subject matter is yet a slogan? The lightness, or insubstantiality emanates from these films’ mimetic nature. Bearing witness to scandal and suffering the audience has recently contended with — if not in their personal lives, then almost certainly through news cycles in recent memory — will tend to fall flat, or even backfire. As in The Report (2019), the remarkably dull recital of how the CIA’s torture program in the aftermath of 9/11 was exposed to the public during the Obama administration. It’s a worthy story that gets tragically hung up on voyeuristic self-importance, memorably mixing brutal reenactments of waterboarding with fantasies of the program’s masterminds doing a champagne toast to torture. Another example that comes to mind is Oliver Stone’s Snowden (2016) — the experience of watching Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Snowden have paranoid sex with his girlfriend (played by Shailene Woodley) in a movie theater three years after the NSA files were leaked is a tape my brain refuses to lose.
For the most part, The Assistant works through these problems gracefully. By avoiding showing the story’s central monster and focusing instead on one of the company’s least powerful workers (Jane’s been there two months, her resume is otherwise a string of internships), the film also manages to avoid making a fetish of exceptional influence and cruelty. The film itself is a bit of a reporting project — Green told Vox in a recent interview that she spoke with about a hundred people as research, starting with former employees of the Weinstein Company and Miramax. I imagine this material is reflected in the chorus of chatter and asides that whirl around Jane as she attends to her tasks. One woman tells her work buddy that she’s sure the company will overlook her for a promotion and hire externally. A man tells a client on the phone that he’ll communicate over his personal email from here on out. These comments also of course underscore that nobody fears their open secrets falling into the wrong channels, not when they’re around Jane.
What’s particularly gutting is the film’s depiction of the office’s community as a sort of makeshift family, one that’s overwhelmingly invested in maintaining its structure. Jane exudes genuine relief, even a frisson of excitement, when her colleagues reassure her that she’s good at her job. Even when it’s issued from the mouth of a tyrannical HR stooge she falls for the line like a child who wants nothing but to make their parent proud. Jane’s diet of Froot Loops and deference to the whims of her boss’s young children (who are briefly brought into the office and placed under her supervision) further clue the viewer in to her dual role as offspring of her boss’s ambitions and caretaker to them. These interactions lay bare the bonds that coalesce at the office in service of creating a frictionless, transactional environment where work gets done and — perhaps most importantly — the company survives its more intransigent employees. The film has been compared to Chantal Akerman’s brilliant 1975 film Jeanne Dielman, a repetitive, nearly four hour-long montage of a woman performing her daily labor in and around her home, which include preparing meals for herself and her son, shopping, and sex work. The comparison is poignant, not just because Jane is performing a different monotonous task in every scene, but for the way she attends so carefully to the material maintenance of the office space as if it were a home.
But as a piece of genuinely imaginative, probing art, I don’t think The Assistant makes the cut. Weinstein aside, Green’s film is in many respects a classic tale of sexual impropriety and brute, systemic power imbalances in the workplace about which many a masterpiece has been made, including The Apartment (1960) and 9 to 5 (1980). Several films from the last couple years, like Parasite, Atlantics, and Sorry to Bother You, have approached stories with labor issues at their heart with ingenuity and ambition. There’s plenty of romance, theatrics, satire, and challenges to the status quo among them. The Assistant shines brighter than all the Megyn Kelly wigs Hollywood could possibly conjure, but it isn’t as provocative as these films, in part because it just shows workers relenting to fear and careerism. It does not for one moment resist the deadening seriousness of its mission: to lay bare the world as it is, thereby exposing the audience to its commonplace horror. Watching it, I wondered if in reflecting the world so transparently — with little artifice, embellishment, or comment — it loses its power as a film, that politics and pluck that have made some other workplace dramas indelible to me. Banality isn’t merely the prerogative of evil, it comes in many shades. Going into the office for the day is generally dull. Watching someone else do it is only marginally better.
Just because a movie ticks all the boxes, speaks with the authority of accuracy, does not mean it can convey the human scope and material indignities of daily inequity. The Assistant comes armed with a microscope when what I yearned for was a length of rope — like the one used to tie up the abusive boss in 9 to 5 — some intervention capable of refashioning this story or at least forcing a question we don’t want to ask of ourselves. As it is, The Assistant shows me the world as I’ve known it in its saddest, drabbest moments, when few people entrenched in its most seductive industries asked anything of it. I dispute nothing, and I remember everything.