The Assistant (2020)

Although it was released earlier this year, The Assistant feels like it’s from an entirely different cultural era. I missed its brief run in New Orleans theaters (despite being a big fan of Kitty Green’s previous film, Casting JonBenét) because it arrived during Mardi Gras season and looked like too much of a bummer to squeeze in between parties and parades. Looking back on that time now, the idea of attending parties and parades is an outlandish, alien concept, as I’ve spent the past eight months (almost immediately following Mardi Gras) avoiding crowds like the plague – literally. As a cultural moment, 2020 has defined almost entirely by the COVID-19 pandemic. Everything from the presidential election to simple grocery store trips has been shaped by COVID in some way, to the point where I no longer recognize the cultural moment that birthed The Assistant. While we are currently living in the COVID era at the tail end of 2020, The Assistant is a film firmly rooted in the #MeToo era that was still very much at the forefront of public discourse at the start of this year. The entertainment industry and workplace culture at large have been violently disrupted by coronavirus outbreaks & safety protocols to the point where The Assistant feels like it’s a retro dispatch from a prehistoric world with its own distinct horrors & abuses. That world is not dead, though; it’s just quietly dormant, soon to return the minute we’re back to “Business As Usual.”

The Assistant is deliberately self-contextualized as a #MeToo era film. Julia Garner (who’s been due for a rise-to-fame breakout at least as far back as 2013’s Electrick Children) stars as a young, low-level assistant to A Harvey Weinstein Type. Her movie producer boss is a faceless, malevolent presence in the office, referenced only by “he/him” pronouns as if speaking his name would be blasphemous to his status as the office God. He is a well-known abuser of vulnerable young women looking to break into the movie industry, an “open secret” in the office that no one does anything about (beyond making jokes under their breath or strongly discouraging official HR complaints). New to the office, the extent to which her boss’s sexual abuses are known, tolerated, and enabled becomes starkly apparent to the disillusioned protagonist over the course of one spectacularly shitty workday. While the sexual abuse of these women is perpetrated by one clear villain at the top of the office hierarchy, he is largely absent from the screen; The Assistant is mostly concerned with the culture that fosters & enables the abuse rather than the physical act itself. It’s a cold, miserable examination of bystander complicity, implicating even its babyfaced protagonist for her own inaction in the face of a system designed to protect its own (as they exploit everyone else for sport).

While The Assistant is rooted specifically in #MeToo abuses within the entertainment industry, it also hits home as a generalized depiction of how demeaning & exploitative all office culture labor is even under the most mundane circumstances. Watching Garner clean up after her boss’s paper jams, children, half-eaten trash, and mysterious couch stains (*shudder*) is relatably grim to anyone who’s ever worked an 8-5 office job in any context. She’s a powerless twenty-something child who’s pressured from all sides to prop up an evil system with meaningless tasks that eat up her time & labor. It’s brutal to watch, even for just a quiet 78-minute stretch. It’s even relatable to the labor exploitations of the COVID era, which has dragged me back to performing mundane day-to-day work in an enclosed office environment despite an ongoing, worsening pandemic – just to maintain the pageantry of “Normalcy.” I don’t mean to imply that The Assistant is no longer relevant to the post-COVID world just because the #MeToo hashtag is no longer the #1 political issue currently at the top of our cultural priority list. It’s more that it now registers as a horrific reminder of what “Back to Normal” will look like once we get past this COVID lockdown disruption; it looks fucking grim.

-Brandon Ledet

Grandma (2015)

EPSON MFP image

three star

Director Paul Weitz has a confusing list of credits. The only connection I can draw between his works (which include American Pie, About a Boy, Down to Earth, Little Fockers, and Being Flynn) is that they tend to be underwhelming films with phenomenal casts. There’s nothing particularly distinct about Weitz’s aesthetic or choice in projects, but he has had the good fortune of working with such diverse talents as Robert DeNiro, Chris Rock, Tina Fey, Scarlett Johansson, Willem Dafoe, John C. Reilly, Dustin Hoffman, Barbara Streisand, Paul Dano, Julianne Moore, and the list goes on. Too bad few (if any) of his films have been worthy of the talent involved. It’s no surprise, then, that I was drawn to the theater for Weitz’s latest picture, Grandma, based on the strength of its two leads alone. It’s also no surprise that the film was okay at best & survived solely on the strength of its lead performances & long list of cameos. If Weitz has a shtick or a calling card as a director, that reaction was pretty much par for the course.

Always dependable comedian Lily Tomlin plays Grandma‘s titular matriarch, a misanthropic lesbian poet who was “marginally well known 40 years ago”, but now suffers an over-the-hump slump of nonproductive self-deprecation in the wake of her longtime partner’s death. Saddled with the lingering debt of her deceased partner’s medical bills, Tomlin’s poet protagonist barely gets by on one-off gigs as a guest lecturer on college campuses. This perilous financial situation is strained even more by the unexpected appearance of her teenage granddaughter Sage (Electrick Children‘s Julia Garner), who only has a few hours to raise over 600 dollars for an appointment to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. What results is a sort of Day in the Life roadtrip comedy-drama as Sage tags along on her miserly grandma’s attempts to hit up ghosts from her past for spare cash. Grandma not quite as funny or as transgressive as the multi-generational roadtrip debauchery-fest Tammy or the frank abortion comedy Obvious Child, but it is a mildly enjoyable picture that leaves room for welcome extended cameos from folks like Laverne Cox, Judy Greer, John Cho, and Sam Elliott, not to mention the killer lead performances from Tomlin & Garner.

When I say that the cast is what drew me to the theater for Grandma, what I really meant is that I wanted to see more from Julia Garner, who was absolutely stellar in Electrick Children, a film I loved enough at first sight to be the first title included in The Swampflix Canon. She’s honestly just as effective here, even if the quality of the material is far from comparable. Grandma is, of course, also a rare treat as a star-vehicle for Lily Tomlin, who hasn’t headlined a film in nearly three decades. Tomlin is funny enough in the titular role, but her character is a bit much to handle for long stretches of time, given her tendency to slip into curmudgeony rants about Kids These Days with their Googles & their Ebays & whatnots. In a telling exchange, Tomlin’s flower child poet is annoyed that her granddaughter has never heard of The Feminine Mystique, while Sage is equally annoyed that her grandma doesn’t know that Mystique is also an X-Men character. It’s not too hard to see who the film sides with there.

Worse yet are casual platitudes like, “I like being old. Young people are stupid,” “Where can you get a reasonably priced abortion these days?”, and the biting, career-specific insult, “You’re a footnote.” Tomlin’s protagonist is the first to admit that she’s “a horrible person”, but her constant attempts to be seen as a hip grandma (including her dragonfly tattoo, her old Dodge hotrod, casual marijuana use, and incongruous affinity for rap music), all downplay the heft of those statements. Although they’re given a lot less to do, most of the film’s pathos is conveyed through turns from Julia Garner, Sam Elliott, and Judy Greer, who help balance out Tomlin’s more jaded notes of emotional detachment, age-specific bitterness, and outdated feminism. Grandma is an enjoyable, modest film with its own interesting visual language (poetic in the dragonfly imagery, subtly funny in visual gags that include a polar bear painting & a toy Jeep) as well as an admirably casual/balanced approach to its themes of abortion & sexual autonomy. If you’re looking for a calm, pleasant picture with a rarely-seen featured performance from either Tomlin or Garner, Grandma is serviceable. As with everything else I’ve seen from Weitz, it’s a decent enough film with a stacked cast of actors that could probably do much better. I’m not sure that the film would pass The Gene Siskel Test (“Is this film more interesting than a documentary of the same actors having lunch?”), but at the very least it’s a close call.

-Brandon Ledet