Two and a half stars

Less than three years ago, the only people who had ever heard of Harvey Weinstein were movie critics, art-house fans, insiders, filmmakers and dozens of women who – more than likely – got their start by agreeing to be present in his company while going through varying degrees of sexual degradation.

The co-founder of Miramax Studios and one of the most astute manipulators of show biz award season politics, Weinstein operated with an archaic mindset where closed-door fumblings led to his belt-notch tally of conquests, prestige for his boutique studio and the bonus of the periodical launching of countless careers.

What Weinstein did was way older than Hollywood and the ancient tit-for-tat exchange of “flesh for fame” bartering. Give me a few minutes of your soul and honor and I’ll provide you entrée to a shot at fame, glory and wealth which at absolute best, has 50/50 odds of ever happening.

A movie about Weinstein (and those like him) was inevitable and, sad to say, “The Assistant” isn’t it or, at least isn’t the one we needed at the moment. Never mentioned by name or even seen, the Weinstein surrogate is always beyond arm’s length and only audible with muffled audio the entire time, which is both a plus and a minus.

Only hearing and not watching a predator in full-attack mode only increases his urban legend status along with the ability to walk through the raindrops of culpability and comeuppance. The problem is, he is never held accountable or made to answer for his sins. The mystery CEO in “The Assistant” doesn’t even think he’s acting in the wrong. Some might view this as the ultimate point.

Told in the space of a single day from the perspective of glorified secretary Jane (Julia Garner), the brief, 87-minute production takes way too long to get going and never fully finds its groove. Only on staff for five weeks, Jane is up at O’Dark Thirty in the morning, takes an Uber to work and carries out the duties of a glorified maid and low-end caterer.

Her first chore is to tidy up a “stain” on the CEO’s couch, collect a lost piece of jewelry, prepare coffee and copy reams of weekend box office reports. A woman with a degree from Northwestern, Jane dreams of eventually becoming a producer — and her knowing, accepting and resigned air lets us know this is all part of the process to move on up the ladder. She is even called on to take care of the more menial and often testy duties of two men who are roughly doing the same job as her.

After spending far too much time on exposition and establishing Jane as a glorified gopher, writer/director Kitty Green finally gets around to the point. Jane is charged with arranging a tryst at a nearby hotel with the CEO and Ruby (Makenzie Leigh), a model-beautiful girl from Idaho he met while at some function in Salt Lake City. Exhibiting no fear, trepidation or uncertainty whatsoever, Ruby (as it is implied) knows what she’s in for and — with a knowing, nervous, anxious smile — takes it all in stride.

At this point and for the remainder, Green loses credibility, or least, believability. Jane becomes the stand-in for the all-consuming and incredulous moral outrage, but little of it registers. A meeting where she files a complaint with an HR representative (Matthew Macfadyen) starts promising but ends with Jane looking merely paranoid and without merit.

Although her insights have weight, Jane comes across as jaundiced and uninformed; loaded with guesses, hypotheticals and assumptions. She has no concrete basis for her accusations and exits the meeting looking bewildered, forlorn and dejected.

With Weinstein still on trial for his crimes in New York, another case yet to start in L.A. and who knows how many others down the road, a movie with such an ideal premise as “The Assistant” might be arriving too soon. Or maybe too late. Or maybe it’s too vague. Or maybe it just doesn’t click.

Jane’s phone interaction with the CEO’s wife (she refuses to lie to her while covering for him), the sheepish and quiet acknowledgment of the male employees looking the other way and the previously mentioned “couch” scene speak minimalist volumes, but they are too few and far between.

Weinstein certainly wasn’t the first studio head to abuse his position of power for seedy self-gratification. But given our instant social networking-sharing culture, he might be the last and that’s great news. Calling men like Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Les Moonves and dozens of others to task probably won’t stop these shenanigans completely. And making examples of them on TV and film isn’t the perfect form of retribution karma, but it’s a great start.

Hopefully, more than a few more filmmakers will pick up where this film left off and will shed much more light on this dark, disgraceful episode in entertainment history.

If you’re in the market for a great movie which addresses the essentially the same uncomfortable and toxic workplace issues as “The Assistant,” check out “Swimming With Sharks” from 1995 starring Kevin Spacey (talk about your prophetic and ironic casting) as a movie studio mogul from hell.

(Bleecker Street)


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