THE ASSISTANT (2019) – Review
Lots of working folks can certainly relate to the chorus of that 1980s pop classic from Huey Lewis and the News: “Takin’ what they’re givin’, cause’ I’m workin’ for a livin’!”. That’s especially true of the somewhat “softer’ occupations, more white than blue-collar, namely the office “drone”. The “cubicle” life has birthed a “more popular than ever” TV sitcom classic, appropriately titled “The Office” (originally birthed in Britain, the show, like “Sesame Street”, has locally produced versions in countries all across the globe). Of course, the movies have explored the travails of the “pencil pushers”, most famously in the Oscar-winning Billy Wilder classic THE APARTMENT (also a great “rom-com”), the opening scenes of JOE VERSUS THE VOLCANO (that fluorescent flicker), and the cult fave OFFICE SPACE (a box office dud that found its fans via TV and home vid). This week’s new release isn’t going for relatable laughs. It’s a truly toxic workplace that, until recently, was a largely unknown part of the entertainment industry. Soul-crushing drudgery exists beneath the tinsel, as we’ve found out in a still on-going news story. If “sunlight is the best disinfectant” than perhaps the spotlight shone from THE ASSISTANT will help with the cleansing.
The start of the workweek begins in the pre-dawn hours of Monday morning for Jane (Julia Garner) as she leaves her modest Astoria apartment, climbs into the backseat of the hired (one of those transport apps) car, and makes the long quiet trek into the Big Apple. She’s the first one there, so she goes through the workspace, firing up those flickering fluorescents, starts the coffee brewing, and cleans up (the janitorial staff can miss things, y’know) the opulent office of her immediate boss, the founder of a movie production house. The other staffers trickle in as she makes a call to her faraway midwestern family (Mom said she missed wishing Dad a Happy Birthday yesterday). Soon her “office mates” arrive, two slightly older guys who seem more occupied by private jokes and workplace hi-jinks. But Jane is “his” personal assistant, so she does most of the work: arranging a trip to LA that evening, blocking the calls from “his wife”, and escorting the “talent’ into his “inner sanctum”. When she “fumbles’ the spousal call, “he” berates her over the phone. Jane then must immediately fire off an apology email to “him” (with lots of input from the fellas). But the biggest indignity is yet to come. Jane is told to help with the arriving “new” assistant. She gets to know Sienna (Kristine Froseth) during the cab ride from the airport. She’s a former waitress, fresh out of junior college, that “he” met while at one of the big “indie” film festivals. No entertainment or office experience, but the company is providing a room at the swank “Mark” hotel (Sienna assumes that Jane ‘s there too). This seems to be the proverbial “last straw”, the big push to send Jane (after Sienna’s is dropped off) into the next-door administrative building, the home of Human Resources. As she shares her concerns with that department’s supervisor Wilcock (Matthew Macfadyen), Jane is relieved by his somewhat sympathetic “ear” and his attentive questioning. Is it possible that Jane will start the change she (and the company) so desperately needs? Can things “get better”?
Being that she’s on-screen for nearly all of the film’s 85-minute runtime, the impact of the story rests on the subtle performance of Ms. Garner in the title role. We observe the daily “hustle and bustle’ through her sad, defeated eyes. Jane may have started with a real passion for her profession, a zeal to be part of a creative process, but that desire seems to be oozing out of her body, like blood from a wound, with every minute in this “corporate cottage” built on fear and retaliation. Her body language suggests a need for a protective shield form the dread of another vicious call from “him” as her arms brace her torso for another verbal assault. But mainly there’s the loneliness as she keeps everything bottled up, unable to confide in family because it would be admitting defeat and inviting retreat, and fearful of hinting to co-workers since any word can be used to climb the company ladder. Garner’s work is truly heart-wrenching and unforgettable. Several other artists shine in support of her. The dramatic rollercoaster of the HR scene shines because of the tension between Garner and Macfadyen as the understated Wilcock, who shifts gears midway to bring the interview to a screeching shocking halt. Things are a bit more complex with Froseth’s Sienna who is played as a “babe in the woods” with Jane resentful at first, then protective of the “wide-eyed doe” she herself projected so long, long ago. And kudos to Alexander Chaplin as the dead-eyed senior exec who shares a secret code with jane as she delivers orders from “him”.
Writer/director Kitty Green has created a compelling commentary on the real scandals that have helped to keep the “Me Too” and “Time’s Up” movements in the public eye (Jane’s tale is almost a rallying cry for action). Green and cinematographer Michael Latham paint the city and office with soft grey tones, as though any bit of vibrant joy has been washed away with a dirty brush. Visitors and workers interact with telling gestures, conveying more than any lengthy dialogue exchanges (Jane returns an earring, with strands of knotted hair, to a woman who had a recent “private” meeting with “him”). Wisely we never see the company head, he’s an angry voice on the phone verbally pummeling Jane with every offensive, derogatory term imaginable. Then he’s the passive kindly email response to Jane’s quick apology (“You’re gonna’ learn so much from me. I’m lucky to have your help.”). The tinkling piano keys in the sparse soundtrack from Tamar-kali heighten the draining monotony of this poisonous purgatory. Towards the finale Green shows us how dreams are destroyed when Jane watches an audition video from an aspiring actress. Jane is moved by the work until she realizes that this talented artist is being groomed for “his” stable of “private meetings”. Nobody respects Jane, she’s visually dismissed when a thought to be sympathetic listener shoves a tissue box at her with disgust. She goes into the “pit” pre-dawn and disappears into the night, alone, knowing the treadmill is waiting for her return in a scant few hours. We’re left hoping that life gets better for THE ASSISTANT, the story’s Jane and all the real Janes in the world.
3 Out of 4
THE ASSISTANT opens everywhere and screens exclusively in the St. Louis area at Landmark’s Plaza Frontenac Cinemas