Movie Review: ‘The Assistant’ Evokes Harvey Weinstein Scandal

Julia Garner in The Assistant (Bleecker Street)

A new film gingerly takes on the notorious industry tycoon.

At last, there’s a movie about Harvey Weinstein. True, nobody important is involved, none of the major studios are distributing it, the budget is approximately $1.78, and major issues go unaddressed. Baby steps! At the rate the movie industry is racing slowly to cover sexual depredations of famous Democrats, we might get a frankly honest movie about John F. Kennedy in, say, 65 years.

The Weinstein movie, which is debuting at the Sundance Film Festival and hits theaters on January 31, is called The Assistant, yet for a movie about sexual misconduct, it looks an awful lot like a movie about making coffee, consulting vacuum-cleaner instruction manuals, and unjamming office copiers. The titular figure, played by Julia Garner, is an office newbie who works for an executive whose face we never see, and whose name is never given, but who unmistakably evokes Weinstein, right down to the Tribeca headquarters, the foreign wife, and the locations of his houses (Connecticut, Greenwich Village, Amagansett).

The assistant lives in a blank, haunted daze, beset by CTSD (current traumatic stress disorder) as she awaits the next tantrum and notices disturbing signs of iniquity. She finds an earring on the carpet, near the couch, and suspects that a fresh new office girl from Idaho, who is being lodged at a pricey hotel, is the boss’s latest concubine. At its most disgusting, the film finds the assistant donning rubber gloves and scrubbing stains off the casting couch. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

That brief scene may earn the film a rep for being an insider’s hard-hitting (I almost said juicy) account, but don’t be fooled. Three-quarters of the movie consists of the advanced banality of booking hotels, ordering lunch, and waiting in silence for elevator doors to open. Even at 85 minutes, the movie is heavily padded, and as was the case with many previous Sundance films, the casual viewer will wonder whether it might have been wise for the filmmaker (in this case, writer-director Kitty Green) to develop a feature-length story before starting production. As for the rare moments of interspersed gossip, some seems like it was plucked off the assistants’ chat room and has little to do with Weinstein. In one sharply etched moment, the boss berates the assistant on the phone, then sends an apologetic email: “You’re very good. If I’m tough on you it’s because I know you can be great.” Clever, and revealing: This must be how Hollywood’s legendarily nasty tycoons simultaneously justify their rotten behavior and make their underlings feel like there’s a point to it all, so they shouldn’t quit just yet. Green need not state that “getting yelled at” is not actually a skill, much less a spur to greatness. Whether Hollywood people understand this, I couldn’t say.

Even at its most damning, though, The Assistant is so mild that Weinstein’s own lawyers could hardly object if the jury at his trial were to see this film. Weinstein has always contended that he had sex with lots of women but it was always consensual; nothing in the film goes against that. In a strangely oblivious interlude, the assistant steels herself and walks over to the H.R. department to blow the whistle. A compliance officer (Matthew Macfadyen) who at first seems receptive and friendly turns sinister and disagreeable while she’s in his office stumbling through what she knows, and a strong couple of minutes from Macfadyen provide the only real acting in the movie. But what is he supposed to do? The assistant has no evidence of any illegal activity. The compliance officer can hardly call in a SWAT team and destroy the company because the head honcho is having extramarital affairs. Society in general has long since passed the point where anyone really considered poking his nose into somebody else’s extramarital affairs, unless other wrongdoing was involved, but in Hollywood the casting couch has been standard equipment since Day 1. The assistant has no case. The compliance officer is absolutely right to tell her so.

That scene is the crux of the movie’s argument, which is a thin one: that young women were helplessly caught up in an evil system in which other young women were exploited by Harvey Weinstein. But this character is the wrong lens through which to view the Weinstein story; you might as well ask a guy who sells hot dogs at Minute Maid Park what he thinks of the Houston Astros scandal. The Weinstein scandal reaches to the highest levels of the entertainment industry and government. People far more important than the office copy-girl knew far more about what was happening with Weinstein, and they all agreed to participate in a conspiracy of silence for the tawdriest of reasons: Weinstein knew how to win Oscars, which all of them desperately wanted. He won one for Meryl Streep. He won one for Penelope Cruz. He won one for Kate Winslet. He won one for Gwyneth Paltrow. None of them had the slightest desire to speak out against him, and none did. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were happy to take Weinstein’s money too, blinders clamped on. All of this is a lot more interesting than an assistant finding an earring on the carpet, but don’t hold your breath for a movie that tells the whole story.

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