What was it like to work for Harvey Weinstein? The Assistant shows the everyday weight of harassment.
Once the #MeToo movement surged into national consciousness with the 2017 allegations against movie producer Harvey Weinstein, it was only a matter of time before it would be incorporated into mainstream Hollywood narratives — and possibly co-opted as a cheap source of currency. That might not be a completely accurate way of describing how the recent movie Bombshell and the recent TV series The Morning Show approach the subject of sexual misconduct. But while Bombshell's story about harassment and abuse at Fox News garnered multiple Oscar nominations and The Morning Show's fictionalized riff on Matt Lauer did well at the Golden Globes, neither of them are being hailed as definitive treatments.
Kitty Green's new movie The Assistant is a smaller, less starry affair. If it's also not a definitive #MeToo document, it's because Green focuses her work too tightly for self-important aspirations. The movie lacks the remove of Bombshell and The Morning Show, both set in the news/infotainment sector of the media world. The Assistant is an indie movie that takes place in the offices of a company that makes indie movies. In other words, it is essentially set at the Weinstein Company, the distributor and production company that Harvey Weinstein ran from 2005 until the New York Times report about his alleged harassment, assault, and rape appeared in 2017.
Though Weinstein is the obvious inspiration for the man in the corner office, Jane (Julia Garner) is not a stand-in for one of his victims, at least not directly. A first-in-last-out assistant working 16-hour days at the company, Jane has never experienced sexual advances from her boss ("you're not his type," another employee offhands dismissively). But she has been berated by him over the phone, often for attempting to handle problems that should be well outside her purview, like giving the correctly worded excuse when his wife calls. The boss himself is never actually, fully seen; he's overheard, half-glimpsed, and lurking on the edge of every frame. The Assistant is a detailed day-in-the-life portrait of office drudgery, but it has the tension of a thriller because of the constant implied threat that the guy in charge will fly off the handle and end Jane's career.
This means that the sexual transgressions, too, are left offscreen. Jane sees the evidence: misplaced earrings, nasty office jokes about not sitting on that office couch, and, most galling, a new assistant hired without warning and put up at a fancy Manhattan hotel, where the boss disappears for hours at a time. This pushes Jane past the shrugs of her male counterparts (Jon Orsini, Noah Robbins) and over to Human Resources. In possibly the most excruciating scene in the movie, her representative (Matthew Macfadyen) faux-cluelessly, then calmly, then coldly discourages her from registering a complaint. Green understands not just the self-interest and self-importance of the movie industry but the corporate mindset of office drones desperate to stick to an ineffectual routine.
This is further emphasized by the movie's terrific sound design; in place of a musical score, there is the hum of overhead lights, the insistent ring of the office phones, and the clacking of a carefully composed apology email — because, of course, Jane must apologize more than once to her monstrous employer, with the other assistants counseling on the most effective wording. Even more chilling: When he doles out some strategic crumbs of praise, it does seem to nourish and relieve her, however briefly. Green drains the setting of any intrigue or glamour, rebuking movies that play up the drive and excitement of working in media, even when trying to show the job at its worst.
In its quiet way, The Assistant is practically an essay about what makes Bombshell, in particular, such a hollow viewing experience. The Fox News movie wants desperately to present the image of a movie that is explaining something, hence Charlize Theron's direct-to-camera walkthrough and the lay-of-the-land conversations between (fictional) staffers played by Kate McKinnon and Margot Robbie. But those explanations are shallow, full of obvious points about Fox News as a business and even more obvious points about no one deserving sexual harassment. The Assistant has almost no spoken exposition — it's more than a few minutes before it has any substantial dialogue, as it follows Jane around her early-hours work routine — and does a powerful job immersing the audience in a toxic workplace.
Of course, some audience members will be wincing not just with sympathy but with active recognition. The details go beyond sexual misconduct, as Green takes note of the male assistants who push any wife- or child-related responsibilities off to Jane, the dutiful girl (and at one point, actual babysitter). The boss's more direct victims have so little voice in the movie that it can barely characterize them as consensual or not, which is one of the problems Jane runs into when she tries to do the right thing. This may strike some viewers as avoidance, zeroing in on an employee who is not harassed (except in all the smaller, more subtle ways that she is), and ultimately not providing much catharsis in the end. But Green understands that part of the problem is the way those voices get hidden, smothered, or silenced on their way out the door, before starting a new day.
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