The Assistant (2020)

“Of course I’m respectable.  I’m old.  Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.”  — John Huston as Noah Cross, in Chinatown.

This serrated barb also applies to institutionalized ignorance.  Wherever sexism, racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism are allowed to spread unchecked, they crawl like ivy–bending, twisting, and covering the landscape around them.  Eventually, they become familiar and permanent features, gaining a sense of shambling respect in the process.  Indeed, it is rumored that when Woodrow Wilson viewed Birth of a Nation, he sighed contentedly:  “It is as it was.”

The Assistant depicts the casual, comfortable misogyny a young woman endures in a typical day on the job.  Jane (Ozark‘s Julia Garner) works as an assistant to a powerful, offscreen movie mogul, who has a few Weinstein-ish tendencies.  Because of her gender, Jane also acts as a de facto house mom to the intellectually malnourished frat boys in her office.  She sweeps up crumbs and tidies desktops, all while the guys trade smarmy glances and exclude her at every opportunity.  When children show up at the office, Jane gets drafted as a babysitter, just as the boys booze and bullshit in the next room.

Over the course of the day, Jane bristles as her boss displays increasingly ugly behavior.  In a masterfully awkward scene, she complains HR about all the lousy things she has seen.  Unfortunately, the HR rep (Matthew Macfadyen) turns out to be just a little more ooze in the cesspool.  His withering dismissal of Jane’s complaints rings with horrible, uncomfortable truth.

As Jane, Garner is quietly astonishing.  Her face clenches tightly with muted frustration and sadness, as her intelligence and resourcefulness are being slowly fitted for a cage. Garner occupies almost every shot of the film, and her strong presence elevates it greatly.  Her work gets abetted by writer-director Kitty Green, whose visual patience owes a debt to the films of Sidney Lumet.

A lot of people might see a film like The Assistant and grouse that not much happens in it.  Undoubtedly, this is a quiet film, centered on a young woman who feels stifled by the system around her.  The fact that Jane’s pain is normal is what makes it frightening.  Chauvinism, mansplaining, locker room talk have been around forever, and that’s the biggest problem of all.  They’re just a part of the landscape now–easy, familiar, reliable.  Truly, it is as it was.

85 minutes.  R.

Author: Todd Wofford

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