This post was updated Feb. 3 at 9:34 a.m.
The Harvey Weinstein scandal ignited the #MeToo movement – and also “The Assistant.”
Starring Julia Garner, the film follows Jane, an assistant working within a film production company. Clearly not pleased with having to schedule meetings instead of actively pursuing her desired career as a producer, Jane’s interest is piqued when she suspects her boss has hired a young, new assistant to sleep with her. It is a plot that clearly draws from current discussions in Hollywood, and director Kitty Green isn’t afraid of exposing the microaggressions many women in the film industry face.
What Green creates is a pointed look at how cycles of predatory behavior persist within the entertainment industry. But in her quest to call out the misogyny that exists in Hollywood, Green fails to fully explore the nuances of the situation, leading to one hour and 25 minutes that focuses too much on the mundanity of assistant life and not enough on the situation’s emotional reality.
Primarily framing her story within the office setting, the restraints Green placed upon herself stops the narrative from reaching its full potential. Her characters remain stagnant throughout the course of the film – Jane is miserably troubled, her boss is cruelly demanding and her male coworkers are entirely unbothered. And the setting, which could have provided an intriguing, microscopic analysis of the film industry, instead forces Green to rely heavily on visual cues that quickly turn from insightful to repetitive.
The film opens with Garner preparing the office for the day – she brews coffee, prints schedules and cleans the carpet, finding a lone earring on her boss’ floor. As the only female assistant, it’s apparent that such tasks are only delegated to her as her male coworkers arrive well after she does. These initial scenes exquisitely convey the subtle inequalities women face in the workforce. Of course it is assumed that she would take out the trash and clean the dishes, because what man would think to do so?
Had the film had moved on from there and leaned more heavily into the other, far more interesting plot lines, such examples would have been but one aspect of an overarching, systemic issue. Instead, Green returns to the same images so often that any attempt at subtlety soon becomes heavy-handed.
The focus on the same issues limits the main character, but Garner does her best with what little she has. In what is clearly the film’s standout scene, she goes to report her suspicions of sexual misconduct to the HR representative Wilcock (Matthew Macfadyen). She lays out her claims, and Wilcock grows more standoffish with each passing moment. Finally allowed to unleash just a bit of her frustration, Garner stutters and whispers through the interaction, reflecting the reality that women who speak up are shunned.
She is quiet and determined, but Wilcock quickly crushes her spirit, insisting that she has no proof beyond office jokes. Her chin quivers as he implies her job would be at stake, and he casually waves the short report around like it means nothing. On her way out, he assures her that she need not fear any sexual harassment herself, as she’s “not as tight” as the new girl.
This moment could have been the centerpiece of a masterful critique of the trials women face within the workforce. It demonstrates how such behavior has gone on for too long, and why so few people are able to speak up while retaining their position within the industry. But five minutes can’t carry a whole film, and the tedious repetition of the rest of the film feels particularly wasteful after how masterfully this one moment is carried out.
In contrast, as Jane returns home after her day at work, it’s unclear what Green wants viewers to ultimately take away. Green presents the reality many women face – but her tale is a particularly hopeless one, as she offers no clear means for people to incite long-lasting reform. Certainly, not every film has to feature women dismantling the patriarchy.
But for “The Assistant” and its evident real-life inspiration, the lack of any sort of reform squanders the opportunity to incite change.