Writing about the TV remake/prequel of Perry Mason, Sarah Marrs explained:
Something has happened in prestige dramas over the last few years: shows have stopped being ABOUT things. Spectacular performances and writing abound, but ask me what these shows are ABOUT, and I draw a blank. Plot has replaced story as the engine of good drama (plot = what is happening, story = why it is happening), and Perry Mason perfectly exemplifies the trend.
I read this the day before watching The Assistant, and the distinction between plot and story had extra resonance. When it is my turn to pick in our weekly Geezer Cinema, I take my wife's taste into my decision. I won't watch something unless I want to see it, but if I've narrowed it down, I might pick a movie I think she'll like, as well. She liked the trailer for The Assistant, and it seemed like a safe pick, although as is usual for me, I knew next to nothing about the movie going in.
For more than half the movie, it seems as if nothing is happening in The Assistant. My wife likes plot, and I sensed The Assistant wasn't doing anything for her. So, when our viewing was interrupted for a moment, I took the opportunity to talk about Marrs' notion of plot and story. Our movie lacked for plot, but we were learning about the title character, which passes for story. She liked the concept, and we continued with the film.
Eventually, a plot emerged, and if I watched it a second time, I suspect that plot would be obvious quite early. As is usual for us, my wife figured out what was going on long before I did. But it may be a step too far to say The Assistant ever got around to a plot. Instead, there was a situation, a situation that illuminated the film ... we learn the Why.
It's possible that Kitty Green, the documentary filmmaker who makes her fiction debut here (she also wrote it) may have made The Assistant too good. The largest part of the film shows an office assistant (Julia Garner) dealing with the drudgery of her job. We see how she is ignored ... she does things without which the office would fall apart, but no one notices her. Garner is excellent, and Green certainly makes us feel the awfulness. But she is so successful that my attention wandered. As Mick LaSalle noted, "The film is worthy and ages well in memory. It was definitely worth making and is almost as definitely worth watching. But it must be admitted that this movie, which is about someone in an office assistant job, is sometimes as stultifying as actually being in such a job. In a sense, boredom is part of the director’s strategy, but boredom is a dangerous substance and must be employed carefully."
(Here is a letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)