Review: ‘The Assistant,’ starring Julia Garner and Matthew Macfadyen

January 28, 2020

by Carla Hay

Julia Garner in “The Assistant” (Photo by Ty Johnson/Bleecker Street)

“The Assistant”

Directed by Kitty Green

Culture Representation: Most of the characters with speaking roles are middle-to-upper-class white Americans in a male-dominated, competitive office environment, although some Asians are briefly represented as visiting Japanese businessmen. 

Culture Clash: An obvious battle of the sexes, “The Assistant” portrays men as mostly explicitly or implicitly sexist against the female protagonist.

Culture Audience: This movie will appeal primarily to those who like arthouse think pieces that have a lot of low-key “slice of life” moments instead of big, dramatic scenes.

Julia Garner in “The Assistant” (Photo by Ty Johnson/Bleecker Street)

“The Assistant” writer/director Kitty Green, a filmmaker from Australia, says that the Harvey Weinstein scandal inspired her to do this fictional dramatic film, and she conducted dozens of interviews with women who survived work-related abuse and harassment. But before people watch the movie, they should know that it’s not a big showdown about a crusader getting justice. Rather, “The Assistant” is more of a character study of why sexual harassment/abuse is enabled in the workplace.

If you prefer your entertainment to be like a suspenseful Lifetime movie or a “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” episode, then “The Assistant” might not be your cup of tea. But if you want the subject matter of workplace abuse and sexism to be tackled in a more realistic manner on screen, then you’ll appreciate that Green took a more subtle and less predictable approach to telling this story. Green previously directed the documentaries “Casting JonBenet” and “Ukraine Is Not a Brothel,” so she has a penchant for doing female-centric movies that explore society’s gender roles and how they influence power dynamics and exploitation.

In partnership with the New York Women’s Foundation, 10% of profits from “The Assistant” will go to support NYWF’s grantmaking to “women-led, community-based organizations that promote the economic security, safety and health of women and families in New York City, where the film was made,” according to the film’s production notes. (Click here for more information.)

At the heart of the story is Jane (played by the always-talented Julia Garner), a recent graduate of Northwestern University, who lives by herself in an apartment in the middle-class New York City neighborhood of Astoria, Queens. Green says she chose the name Jane for this character as a metaphor for all the Jane Does who experience what this character experiences in the movie.

Jane is a hard-working, soft-spoken employee at an unnamed successful movie/TV company, where she’s on the lowest end of the administrative assistant hierarchy. She gets up at the crack of dawn to be the first person in the office, which strongly resembles The Weinstein Company’s former headquarters in New York City’s TriBeCa area. It’s a large enough company to have locations in other cities, such as Los Angeles and London, but it’s not a massive conglomerate that can afford to be in a super-modern and pricey office building. The office vibe is corporate, with lots of men in business suits going in and out of the building, but just enough of a downtown Manhattan aura to remind people that it’s an entertainment company in a trendy part of the city.

For the first 20 minutes of the film, a mostly silent Jane does mundane office work, such as making coffee, filing papers, and booking travel arrangements. But there are enough signs to show that she is lonely and isolated in the big city. The only people outside of work she communicates with are her supportive parents via phone. It’s clear from Jane’s conversations that she spends many late nights and weekends at the office, and she has no social life because of her workaholic ways. She’s an aspiring film producer, so it’s easy to see why she want this job and is desperate to please her boss.

In the very male-dominated office, she’s treated like an expendable underling. She’s so low on the totem pole that she even has to order lunch for the two male administrative assistants who work at the desks near her. Jane has been at the company for about five weeks, so the male assistants (who are not named in the movie) constantly remind Jane in micro-aggressive ways that they have more seniority and power than she does. One of them (played by Noah Robbins) repeatedly throws a wad of paper at Jane to get her attention. The other male assistant (played by Jon Orisini) has a tendency to look over Jane’s shoulder when she’s working on the computer, as if he’s entitled to know what she’s doing and is ready to jump in and correct any mistake that he’s certain that she’ll make.

One of the few female employees seen in the office is a middle-aged cynic who is not only complicit in covering up for the predatory boss, but she also openly expresses contempt for some of the pretty young women (wannabe actresses or wannabe industry people) who have appointments to see the boss, in the hopes that he’ll give them their big breaks. After one of these eager hopefuls (whose name is Ruby, played by Makenzie Leigh) is ushered into the boss’s office for an “audition,” the female co-worker sneers to Jane that the woman is a “waste of time.”

Going against what might be expected in movies about sexual harassment in the workplace, Green (who’s a producer and co-editor of “The Assistant”) never actually shows explicit sexual abuse in the movie, nor does she ever show the boss on screen, and viewers never find out what his name is. The biggest indication that the viewers get in how the boss operates is seeing that he has several attractive young women who have private meetings alone with him in his office or in a local hotel. (Jane has the task of booking the hotel suites that he uses.)

She also notices when doing some accounting work that some signed checks that she’s responsible for recording have large amounts but no payee name on the checks. When she asks an unidentified male over the phone if her boss knows what the checks are for, she’s told in a tone of voice that yes, the boss does know, and Jane better not ask any more questions about it.

As for this mysterious and malevolent boss, viewers can hear him being verbally abusive over the phone to Jane in insulting rants that are muffled just enough that the movie never lets you hear his voice clearly, as if to say, “This could be your boss or the boss of someone you know.” Jane feels pressured to write suck-up apology emails to the boss every time he yells at her (and her nosy male colleagues even dictate what she should say in the email), which adds to Jane’s humilation. The boss also shows his manipulative side when, after one of his abusive tirades, he sends Jane an email that says, “You’re very good. I’m tough on you because I’m gonna make you great.”

In one disturbing scene, the two rotten assistants who work next to Jane listen in by phone on what’s happening in the boss’s office during one of his “private meetings” with a woman, and they laugh like two drunken frat boys at the faint sounds of sexual moaning that they know Jane can probably hear. (Based on her facial expression, she does hear what’s going on, but she’s too shocked to say anything.) The implication is clear: Someone in that office deliberately let these guys listen in by phone, because they knew they’d get a kick out of it.

The signs of sexual harassment and degradation are there, and Jane (who’s no idiot) figures out what’s going on, and becomes increasingly uncomfortable with it. The viewers of this movie see the signs too: Jane cleans up stains in her boss’ office before the other employees get there—even though the company has cleaning employees, Jane says she’s been told to personally clean the boss’s office. Jane opens a mailed box of prescription bottles filled with erection-aid medication and places the bottles in the boss’ office medicine cabinet—something that Weinstein reportedly had his assistants do in real life. Jane returns a lost earring to a distraught woman who goes back to the office, after losing the earring during a private meeting with the boss. The fear and dread in the woman’s eyes are unmistakable—she’s reluctantly returned to the scene of a crime where she was a victim.

And in case viewers aren’t sure if the boss uses a “casting couch” for his interviews with women, there’s a scene that spells it out very clearly. A group of businessmen are gathered in the boss’ office for a meeting, and while they’re waiting for the boss to arrive, one of the men laughs as he warns one of a visiting businessman who’s about to sit on a couch, “I wouldn’t sit there if I were you.”

There are also signs that the predatory boss is out of control, because he misses appointments, and Jane often has to lie to people who are looking for him. It’s because he has a habit of mysteriously disappearing from the office at the same time as the latest nubile young woman who showed up to visit him.  Jane is often left to deal with the wrath of the boss’ wife, who gets furious when Jane can’t tell her where her husband is. In another scene, Jane frantically enlists the help of an executive when her boss skips a business meeting and doesn’t telling anyone where he’s gone.

There’s also a major hint that this toxic boss has a drug problem, because one of Jane’s job duties is to go through her boss’s trash can and dispose of the used hypodermic needles that she finds there. It’s never said what was in those needles, but whatever it is, the boss doesn’t want the regular cleaning people to find out, and Jane has to get rid of the needles herself.

Why would anyone put up with this miserable and dysfunctional workplace? As the brainwashed employees constantly tell Jane, she should consider herself lucky to work there, because of the opportunties she could get in the entertainment industry just by being at that job.  (It’s the main reason why many former longtime Weinstein employees have confessed in post-scandal interviews that they stayed as long as they did, even though they knew Weinstein was an abusive boss.)

And yet, for all the preaching from the employees about how privileged they are to work for this company, no one actually looks happy to be there. It’s clear that all of the underlings (not just the women) and many executives stay because, just like rabbits with a carrot dangled out of their reach, they all want the glory and power that they think this job might get them if they stick around long enough and claw their way to the top.

If you’re looking for a feel-good feminist movie where Jane finds female allies, and they band together to take down the predator, this isn’t that kind of film. In fact, except for Jane, all of the women who are seen in the movie come across as either meek victims who give furtive glances, as if they want to say something but are too afraid; power-hungry shrews who look the other way (such as the boss’ wife); or desperately ambitious pretty women who may or may not know that sexual activity is going to part of what’s expected from the predatory boss. In other words, Jane is the only woman in the movie who seems to have a moral compass and the courage to speak out about the abuse that she knows is going on around her.

Similarly, all the men with speaking roles in the movie (except for Jane’s father, who we only hear over the phone) are either dismissive or condescending to Jane. There’s absolutely no subtlety in portraying these male employees as either abusive villains or weak-minded followers who are complicit in their sexism. Meanwhile, Jane is portrayed as a kind-hearted heroine who’s surrounded by a bunch of soulless or vapid people. And therein lies the movie’s biggest flaw: The characters are written with such broad, black-and-white strokes that although the situations in the movie are realistic, the characters often feel underdeveloped and undeservedly clichéd.

It wouldn’t have been that hard to have at least one other smart and likable person in that office besides Jane. Even in other “boss from hell” movies (“The Devil Wears Prada,” “Swimming With Sharks”), there was at least one other sympathetic character besides the protagonist. For all the horror stories that have been exposed about Weinstein, many people inside and outside his now-defunct company said that there were a lot of good people working there. Many of them (like Jane) couldn’t afford to quit without another job lined up, which is why most people who hate their jobs stay longer than they should. The only way to excuse this movie’s main flaw is that it seems like Green wanted to make it obvious that Jane is very isolated at work. But it’s a point delivered with the subtlety of a jackhammer.

The turning point for Jane is when she finds out that her boss from hell has hired another assistant named Sienna (played by Kristen Froseth), a barely legal teen who’s fresh out of high school and has no related work experience. The boss has flown out this attractive, wide-eyed teen from Idaho (he met her in Sun Valley when he was there for a conference) and has put her up in a hotel that Jane knows her boss uses for his “private meetings.” As Jane is tasked with training this new employee, she quickly finds out that Sienna is useless around the office and that Sienna’s employment is probably a cover-up for something sleazy. (Sienna kind of senses it too in her first day on the job, when she’s told to sign some papers, and she hesitantly asks if she needs to have a lawyer.)

The movie’s most powerful scene is when Jane takes her concerns to a high-ranking human resources executive named Wilcock (played by Matthew Macfadyen), who proceeds to turn things around and make it sound like Jane’s concerns have no merit and that she’s just insecure and jealous of Sienna. He browbeats Jane and making her feel like she’s a nuisance and a nutjob.

After Wilcock tells Jane that he has “400 résumés” lined up from people who want her job, he then makes the ultimate manipulative move. He asks her if she thinks it’s worth it for him to take her complaint higher up, or if he should toss out the complaint. “You know how this will look,” he tells her as he shows her the skimpy notes he’s taken during the meeting. And if Jane had any doubt about which side this HR creep is on and how much dirt he really knows about the boss, those doubts are squashed when he ends the meeting by telling her that she doesn’t have anything to worry about with the boss because, “You’re not his type.”

People looking for several flashy and dramatic scenes like this one will be disappointed in the movie overall, which would be a shame, because expecting a predictable formula would be missing the whole point of how this story was told. The movie’s greatest strength is that it shows that the worst sexual harassment, employee abuse and sexism in the workplace are rarely done out in the open where there are plenty of witnesses. The abuse often takes place behind closed doors where the abuser and the victim are the only witnesses.

Sexism in the workplace, even if reported, is often dismissed as a joke. The victim is unfairly branded as a “difficult complainer” who’s “not a good fit” for the company, and then victim is the one who gets fired or is targeted to be fired. Sympathetic co-workers and colleagues might suspect workplace abuse, but they stay silent out of fear of losing their jobs. In many cases, co-workers will side with the workplace bully if they think it will help their careers. These are some of the main reasons why so many victims are afraid to come forward.

The movie adeptly shows that amid the dull office tasks that this lowly assistant must do every day, there’s a feeling of dread and powerlessness that she and probably many other employees feel when they know they’re working for a sexual predator but they think he’s too powerful to stop, especially if he owns the company that employs them. Instead of rallying together to fight the abuse, in most situations, employees have a “mind my own business, keep my head down” way of dealing with these issues.

And the movie accurately depicts the culture of silence from people who are afraid of speaking up about abuse, for fear of retaliation, or they don’t speak up because they just don’t care. Unless harassment is happening to them and negatively affects their jobs directly, many people just don’t want to deal with it, much less talk about it. So, when people ask why it sometimes takes years for people to report work-related abuse or harassment, “The Assistant” should be essential viewing for them, because it does more to explain what’s more likely to happen in real life than any formulaic movie that wraps things up nicely in a safe and tidy bow.

Bleeker Street will release “The Assistant” in select U.S. theaters on January 31, 2020.