Janeane Garofalo stars as a demanding executive who returns from her lunch break to find that her assistant has succumbed to an unexpected fate. Co-starring Joe Wengert and cast with many Los Angeles based alternative comedians, this dry comedy showcases the talented Garofalo in a morally complex lead role. The Assistant was an official selection at several film festivals including Palm Springs Shortfest and Cinequest.
Straight out of the gate, ‘The Assistant’ hits us with jokes that we know that we really should not be laughing at. Julie Cohen and Ted Kupper’s screenplay pulls no punches with either its drama or its humour as it tells the story of a boss so detached from her humanity that she struggles to deal with the reflection of herself that is presented when her assistant suddenly passes away.
Julie Cohen also takes on the director’s chair and populates the cast, both central and supporting with an array of comic actors including Comedy Bang! Bang! Writer Joe Wengert and Jimmy Kimmel Live regular Vivian Kerr. The result of peppering the cast and environment with so many comic personalities, results in nuggets of dry comedy attacking you from every angle. Far from slapstick, the outlandish witticisms of the office staff, even before Garofalo’s Joanna enters the fray, show a staff forced to pander to self-important personalities and pretend to be enthusiastic about bad work.
One key theme of this film is isolation. The introduction of the office and its staff shows each of them in cubicles and on phone calls, seemingly oblivious t what is happening to their colleagues only feet away from them. The primary example of this is Leslie, the titular assistant, who starts to develop medical problems sat amongst her co-workers, gets up, walks into her boss’ office, lies down and dies completely unnoticed. It is only what Joanna returns after trying to reach her assistant, that anyone notices that she is gone.
The theme of isolation is highlighted by well-executed key moments that are brave enough to leave the almost non-stop comedy behind. After the initial shock of Leslie’s death, Joanna’s first instinct is to go through Leslie’s emails for references to herself after overhearing two employees discussing what a terrible boss she is. In the process of doing so, Joanna sees pictures of family, graduations and other key moments in her assistant’s life that she (or probably anyone else in her office) were unaware of. This fleeting moment brings home the realisation that each of these beleaguered people have lives that make them happy and that their working lives drill that happiness out of them.
Isolation from one another is played out in the film’s comical elements as well, with the death of a co-worker being treated more like gossip than a tragedy. Some guilty laughs are mined from people engaging in seriously crass behavior. from sneaking phone pictures of Leslie’s covered body (doubtlessly destined for Twitter) to another employee exclaiming to a friend over the phone that “she’s dead bro!” right before switching back to his professional voice to take a client call.
Ultimately, this story is about a woman who has a light shined on who she is as a person and does not like what she sees. After a staff meeting that is equal parts hilarious and jaw-droppingly shocking, and the revelation that Leslie had mountains of emails complaining about how terrible a person her boss is, Joanna is faced with the decision as to whether or not to be a better person. Garofalo is fantastic in this role as she channels a high-strung personality moving at 100 miles per hour that is forced to come to a complete stop and acknowledge everything that she routinely ignores and neglects. Joe Wengert is equally impressive as Garrett, Joanna’s number two, who has to at once be submissive and courageous.
Anyone who has ever seen ‘The Office’ will recognise the visual style here, but this is far from an imitation. Cohen does a fantastic job of utilising visual and comedic approaches to get the audience into a place where she can effectively share a personal and intimate story.
Studio: Julie Cohen
Duration: 12 mins
Director: Julie Cohen