As I watched “The Assistant”, written and directed by Kitty Green, that famous pitch of Seinfeld kept swirling in my mind: “A show about nothing”. Lots of creators would call that worthless, some would be excited by the prospect yet lost in the directionless pitfalls of the premise, but there are a few that would navigate that space to create something that feels unique and interesting; Kitty Green is the latter. I’m not entirely in love with “The Assistant” and would not recommend it to most people, but it is one of the most interesting movies to come out in the past few years; whether that makes it worthwhile for you depends on why you watch movies or, more accurately, what experiences you seek. For me, the answer is that I appreciate this movie and have rewatched several parts of it multiple times, because of how good the execution is, but not really because I think it is especially great in entertainment value.
“The Assistant” stars Julia Garner as an assistant to a high-profile movie executive and follows her on a seemingly normal day as she does her job; she gets in the office before everyone else and prints out several doc sheets throughout the film to distribute them; she makes sure her boss has a driver waiting for him when he lands in the airport; she deals with everything he doesn’t want to or will distract him from his “work”. If I wanted to simplify things I would say “that’s it”, but I don’t want to do that, mostly because that is precisely why I was enthralled by this movie; before I get to that though, there’s also the obvious inspiration for the boss being a certain disgraced producer and Garner’s character clearly going through some bullshit in her work environment. What I loved about the movie has mostly nothing to do with that, but those elements are very well done and I would like to touch upon them to the best of my capabilities, as well as reassure people that this is not a “girl-power” movie or preachy with that stuff; in fact, it is surprisingly and refreshingly neutral and off-hand with it.
Jane (Garner’s character) is portrayed to be introverted and very focused on her job and the movie does an excellent job at establishing that in excruciating detail (more on that later), but also through that showing the type of passive aggression/manipulation Jane has to endure. A great and subtle example of this is the use of food as a framing device for her relationship with her male co-workers, who are also assistants to the executive. At the start of the movie, when her co-workers arrive, one brings with him food for them (one even remarks how he wanted bagel, but didn’t find any), but when it comes to lunch, Jane is shown picking up the delivery and serving the food to her coworkers where one berates her (mildly) for getting the wrong order; this is what I meant when I said ‘subtle’. It implies a dynamic where her status as an assistant is even downplayed by her male counterparts in a condescending and passively infuriating way; there are dozens of similar examples cramped into the movie where it slowly starts to get under your skin and makes you sympathize with Jane. My favorite part of this “section” is the assistant angle to it all; the movie doesn’t really bring it up until the very end, but once it enters your mind you start looking at things from her perspective. How do you prove beyond a doubt that what she is experiencing is sexist and not common abuse directed at that position – which is not okay either, but is not inherently sexist. It is one of the cleverest uses of recontextualizing a character, after we as an audience are “subjected” to the ‘ugly truth’, which are the myriads of scandals and revelations that came from victims finally coming forth and holding their abusers accountable.
One last detour before I get into the main part of the review, but this is the most significant detour, because without this element this movie does not work: The masterclass of acting by Julia Garner. She, only using mannerisms, facial expressions, and tone of voice, relays so much emotion and information, vital for the audience to relate and experience EVERYTHING the movie is trying to portray and say; it is a movie that does not simplify things to “good” or “bad” and a lot of the neutral aspects (especially when it comes to other women in the film and males beyond the executive boss) are completely reliant on Garner’s performance, but she also has to make her character work for the audience to be invested in her journey and make the movie work.
(Just wanted to add as a fair warning that the next paragraph may contain some light spoilers, but nothing I consider too revealing)
This is what I meant by the movie being essentially about nothing, yet it being a fascinating movie to study; Garner will be shown writing an email or fixing a printer for most of the movie and that is the entire plot. However, the movie actually explores so much more through these routine and boring actions she has to do. An example of what I mean is a scene where Jane is cleaning up the dirty dishes in the sink, when a couple of her colleagues walk in holding cups and talking; instinctively one lets her cup near the sink. Jane sees the cup and with a heavy sigh picks it up and cleans it; simple, right? In practice, through Garner’s acting and Green’s directing, you feel the complete disregard those colleagues have for Jane and the contempt she feels for them, yet decides to power through. The movie is pretty much those moments, acted and directed to perfection, and also explore with the same ethos various other aspects of Jane’s routine and the realizations she makes and acts upon. My favorite one has to be the way the movie treats the “other” women in the boss’s life; there are tiny moments dispersed throughout that paint a very clear picture (with the caveat that you put the effort to piece the puzzle together) like the very first thing Jane does in the office is clean her boss’s couch (with clear disgust painted on her face) and connecting that with something the executives say later on where they joke about never wanting to sit on that couch with a macho giggle that illuminates a pretty clear vision of what has happened on that couch. That is what happens to them, but how Jane and the movie treats them is very different; Jane never judges them, negatively or positively. She has quite a few interactions with them, but she never shows signs of contempt or even understanding where they come from or why they would accept this treatment, because the reality is there are too many reasons to have a satisfying answer. Jane’s ambitions of becoming a producer, her boss’s influence, and outside peer pressure are what ultimately drive her to “back down” from her moral and ethical concerns, but that is not portrayed as a betrayal of her character or a moment of growth or learning to persevere through difficulties; it felt like a person reaching their breaking point under a system that systematically allows it to happen.
All these points are not even half of my thoughts on the movie and how it is directed, acted, produced, etc. I’m not really going to go into all of it, but reading that should cue you in if you’re going to love or hate this movie; this is a movie where nothing happens and they revel in that freedom to make interesting decisions on every layer. That being said, if you are not interested in that interaction with the movie, then there is literally nothing here for you; this is an hour and a half of following an officer worker through a hostile environment and then it ends. That lack of direct action or tangible progression will certainly piss off a lot of people and bore a heck of a lot more to tears; I can’t argue with that point, because I agree with it. I, too, was bored at times, but it is part of making you sympathize with Jane’s routine. Even though that is a valid technique, it is also not meant to excuse boring movies, and “The Assistant” doesn’t do it for a portion of the movie, it is the entire movie. My biggest critique though is that without the mentality of “how was this scene written on a script” or “why was this decision made”, the movie is a slog and a lot of people seem to think so as well.
Having said that, this is a movie niche for a niche group of people within a niche group. Most people will not like it and that’s fine; I can foresee a version of this movie that would be more fun to see, but not one where it would create such an interesting and thought-provoking experience, not only for the themes it explores, but for how and why it was made the way it was.