‘The Assistant’ Review: The Evil in the Background | Sundance 2020

     January 24, 2020

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Harvey Weinstein looms over Kitty Green‘s drama The Assistant. The movie is about an assistant working for an unseen production company boss, but it’s impossible to watch the film without thinking of the grotesque mogul. To be fair, The Assistant isn’t solely about Weinstein and it seeks to examine how regular people function in a toxic environment, but Green consciously chose to set her movie in a film production office rather than a hedge fund or any other workplace that might serve a gross, horny overlord. The concept of the tyrannical and abusive studio mogul is nothing new, and that’s kind of the main problem with The Assistant—it doesn’t really have anything new to add that you couldn’t already deduce from publicly known facts. The film is ostensibly a view from the bottom at how a figure like Weinstein operated, but in 2020, we’re already past that. Perhaps if The Assistant had been released at the height of Weinstein’s powers it would have been more captivating, but today it feels more like a footnote.

Jane (Julia Garner) is a junior assistant to a powerful but unseen production executive. The film is a day in her life as she gets up early and does a variety of tasks like tidying up her boss’ office to ordering food to dealing with his wife to facilitating how the boss preys upon women. When Jane, who has only been working in the company for five weeks, encounters a young, pretty, and innocent young woman who’s come from Boise, Idaho to be a new assistant, she wonders if she should take the issue to HR (Matthew Macfadyen) even though her mountain of indirect evidence may not be good enough to prove misconduct. But overall, Jane quietly moves through a system largely devoid of kindness and empathy as everyone keeps their heads down, accepts that the boss is a tyrannical pervert, and goes about their day.

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Image via Bleecker Street

Green’s direction is immaculate as she paints the office is cold, harsh lighting and then permeates it with background noise of an office culture that is casually cruel and largely indifferent, especially towards women like Jane, because that’s how its employees have learned to survive. The Assistant excels at dropping you into this environment to the point where I felt like I had been forced to work at an office job for a day. The movie makes the point to never be flashy with Garner giving a restrained, quietly intense performance where there really aren’t “big moments” because The Assistant knows that’s now how this world operates. At no point is the pervert boss going to come out and announce to his employees that he’s going to be using the couch in his office to sleep with aspiring actresses. It just happens in the background, everybody knows about it, and they stay silent because there’s no mechanism for dealing with it.

However, that helplessness and futility renders The Assistant largely inert. The biggest problem with The Assistant is you have it figured out in the first ten minutes and there’s nowhere for it to go. This isn’t really a story about how you push back against institutionalized barriers or how a predator is able to stay protected for so long. If you have any understanding of how this kind of environment works, it’s not surprising why someone like Jane and her cohorts just have to live with this crap. We’re all aware of the banality of evil and The Assistant does little to add to the conversation. Green didn’t need to make an uplifting story about fighting back against the system, but there’s hardly any movement at all in The Assistant. Arguably, that’s the point—it’s a fixed, closed system that insulated a predator—but you don’t need a feature-length film to make us understand.

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Image via Sundance

Perhaps if the film had been released at the height of Weinstein’s powers, it could have been more eye-opening to show how someone like him operates. Of course, it’s not like Weinstein is the only bad actor in the world or that people like him don’t exist in other industries, but The Assistant would have made more waves in 2014. In 2020 it feels late to the conversation and without much to add. We know why men like Weinstein are insulated and how they operate thanks to the excellent reporting of Jodi Kantor & Megan Twohey and Ronan Farrow. The Assistant will make you nod in recognition, but never offers any fresh insights.

Rating: C+

The Assistant opens in limited release on January 31st. For more of our Sundance coverage, click on the links below:

For more of our Sundance 2020 reviews, see below:

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