The Assistant takes on the Weinstein scandal very directly, but not very efficaciously.
The Assistant falls into a sort of criticism gray zone, representing a vacuous Goldilocks just-rightness that suffers for its unwillingness to be either too hot or too cold. It is not a film that deserves adulation, but nor is it a film that merits negative reviews. It just is; a tepid, milquetoast movie that side-swipes an important current event with just enough force as to prevent any credible takedowns but without sufficient gusto to be impactful.
The Assistant traces a single day in the life of Jane (Julia Garner), a fresh-faced assistant in a film and TV production company in New York. Jane is just a couple of months out of Northwestern and has logged less than six weeks at her new job. In her role as assistant, she does all the sort of work one would imagine: making copies, tidying desks, answering and making dozens of phone calls, organizing travel arrangements and handling the office lunch orders. But she also gets to participate in some more exciting tasks, such as reading draft scripts, meeting industry big-wigs and conversing with genuine stars of screen and stage. It is a good job, especially for someone 22ish years of age. She is chauffeured to work, seems to make enough money that rent and student loan debt service are not overbearing concerns for her, has real opportunities for promotion in the near future and has comfortable working conditions. Jane is working in the industry that she wants to, as well. For some reason, The Assistant emphasizes only the negative parts of Jane’s job, as if being an entry-level assistant is beneath her.
This is the first thing that The Assistant gets very wrong: the tone. The industrious Jane is shown as heroic for doing everyday workplace tasks. As a general rule of thumb, work in the United States in 2020 sucks. Very few US citizens today both like their job and have a job that sufficiently covers their economic needs. Almost everyone sacrifices either career fulfillment or material well-being. Many jobs have no security or chance for promotion, while most are under-paying. Many people in the US work in unsafe or uncomfortable workplaces and almost everyone is working in an industry or field that is not their first choice. But Jane avoids all of these commonplace hazards. In terms of work, she must be one of the luckiest SOBs in the entire country. She should not be portrayed as some postmodern working-class hero for handling paper jams in the copy machine.
But the tone is necessary because Jane is not happy with her job. And The Assistant, as a film, portrays Jane as being in the right. The viewer is supposed to see her daily tasks as tedious and empty and unfulfilling. The viewer is expected to side with Jane and agree that she deserves better. But this results in the film telling you how to feel, rather than making you feel that way, like the emotional equivalent of telling-not-showing.
It does this by dramatizing the Me Too movement. One of Jane’s work duties on the day covered in the film is dealing with a new hire, another female assistant. This one was flown to New York from Idaho, where she met the head executive of the production company while she was working as a waitress. Jane escorts her to a hotel suite, where the executive will meet the new hire for a sexual liaison, while Jane has to return to her desk and rearrange meetings and wrangle angry coworkers. Jane does not know what to do and resolves to report this incident as sexual harassment in the workplace before she is persuaded not to do so.
If The Assistant were a better film, the viewer would feel outraged by what happened to Jane. But instead the viewer is bewildered, knowing that outrage is how one is supposed to feel but not getting that emotion from the film itself. Rather, Jane seems petty and jealous, a spoiled and impatient child who lucked into an easy life and yet whines that she never got put up in a hotel suite by the company. Jane, the film’s paragon of working-class values, petulantly shouts that the new hire used to be “a waitress” as if a food service job were as disqualifying of one’s merits as being a war criminal would be. How privileged was Jane’s life prior to this one day that the viewer gets to see that she is allowed to think and talk this way? The film does offer glimpses of her privilege, such as when she brags about her summer internships (her poorer peers were instead working menial jobs, perhaps even as waitresses). And yet, Jane is undeniably a victim of workplace harassment, with a pathological and abusive boss. The viewer is told, not shown, how to feel.
The Assistant takes on the Weinstein scandal very directly, but not very efficaciously. Its failure is in its pathos, as most viewers are just not going to feel sorry for someone who so effortlessly (and seemingly undeservingly) won the career lottery as Jane.