She is not stylish.
Quiet, demure, “mousie” we used to say, she is anonymous, invisible — barely noticed and when she is, it’s to slough off some unpleasant bit of personal or busy work.
She’s just been on the job five weeks, but she’s already proficient at the requirements of being “first in, last to leave” at this motion picture production company. She makes coffee, loads the mini-fridge with Fiji Water, empties trash, juggles schedules, prints out and binds scripts, balances her boss’s personal expenses ledger.
And she puts on rubber gloves, goes in and tidies up his office, hours before he arrives, scrubbing stains we never see, saving dropped earrings we do.
She is “The Assistant,” a minutely detailed character study in the drones — go-getters fresh out of college or entitled offspring hired as a favor to relatives and someone you may need a favor from — the faceless, mostly silent “entry level” folks who make the world work for the people who make movies.
And if Harvey Weinstein’s trial is the perfect context for this timely “#MeToo” era drama, they are the cowed eyewitnesses to Hollywood’s casting couch culture and its binding code of silence.
Julia Garner of TV’s “Ozark” is plain Jane — never named in the movie, new to the job and impassively accepting the low-woman on the totem pole off-loading of work that her two senior fellow assistants (Noah Robbins, Jon Orsini) leave her to deal with.
An irate, scratchy phone connection — “It’s the wife.”
Shrug. Why indeed?
“How was YOUR weekend?” one who bothers to return her early morning pleasantry asks.
“I was here.”
Documentary filmmaker turned first-time feature writer/director Kitty Green shows us a day in this young woman’s life — up well before dawn, availing herself of the studio’s car service, dozing with binders in her lap at the start of the day, picking at yet another pastry at the darkened end of it.
Garner plays Jane as poker-faced, first scene to last. Except for those moments when she gets a half-overheard tongue lashing from The Boss, whom we never see and she probably doesn’t either. He’s the sort that brings her to silent tears over the fact that she’s not doing a good enough job of placating his irate wife. Her every transgression requires an emailed apology.
Her two semi-smug colleagues edit each mea culpa for her, standing over her shoulder. “Thank you for this opportunity you’ve given me. I won’t let you down again.”
Anybody expecting high drama or even a little righteous outrage and “Hollywood” melodrama may feel sorely let down by Green’s portrait.
This is a film of quiet, florescent gloom, conversations overheard, whispers, Jane always glanced at and then ignored. A favorite moment — she gets on an elevator with a movie star. He says nothing, she says nothing. She probably isn’t allowed. It’s Patrick Wilson.
Of course there has to be an arc to this character, this milquetoast Hollywood version of assistants we’ve seen in “The Devil Wears Prada,” “Swimming With Sharks,” “The Big Picture” and “30 Rock.” An even younger and prettier young thing (Makenzie Leigh) shows up, flown in from her waitress job in Idaho. She’s to be the fourth “assistant.” And Jane has to take her to the swank hotel where they–HE– are putting her up.
Matthew McFadyen, co-star with Keira K. in the big screen “Pride & Prejudice,” plays the sympathetic HR guy who hears her timid complaints, and we get a dazzling, understated dose of his transition from “You can tell me. That’s what I’m here for,” to “Do you like working here?”
That’s about as dramatic as “The Assistant” gets. There are a dozen ways Green could have goosed the script, even slightly, to give us a little more and make this movie more of a meal.
But there’s value in seeing the hierarchy at such studios, the endless meetings and the egos, the “wheels’ up” coast-to-coast juggling act, and the cavalier treatment of underlings and other people’s time.
Only “The Chairman” gets an office. Everybody else has a cubicle. Everybody else has to take it, to wait — in the limo, on the tarmac, in the conference room. And any “It gets better” can be grimly laughed off. Here’s that one long-suffering cubicle VP (Alexander Chaplin) who endures the worst of it, like Jane, forced to deal with every appointment blown off for a casting session, irate Chinese investors left hanging because The Boss is on “personal time.”
Somewhere. Somewhere with room service.
MPAA Rating: R for some language
Cast: Julia Garner, Matthew McFadyen, Noah Robbins, Makenzie Leigh, Jon Orsini, Alexander Chaplin and Patrick Wilson.
Credits: Written and directed by Kitty Green. A Bleecker Street release.
Running time: 1:27