Filmed in a conventional, almost old-fashioned style, “The Assistant” is a solid, if unexceptional, Depression-era drama based on Bernard Malamud’s 1957 novel. Pic boasts some strong perfs, most notably from Armin Mueller-Stahl, and the story of love, crime and anti-Semitism still carries resonance today. But slow pacing and the somewhat dated approach will make this one a tough sell theatrically. Feature will find more support on the small screen, where its understated dramatics will be better appreciated.
Central figure is Frank Alpine (Gil Bellows), a homeless drifter desperate to make a buck wherever he can. He bumps into another down-on-his-luck hobo, Ward Minogue (Jaimz Woolvett), who cuts Frank in on his plans for the holdup of a local store. They storm into the Bober family’s grocery, and things turn violent when owner Morris Bober (Mueller-Stahl) insists he has very little cash to hand over to the robbers. Ward attacks the frail old man and makes some vicious anti-Semitic remarks. The brutality of Ward’s physical and verbal onslaught leaves Frank visibly shaken.
Frank later returns to the store and, in an effort to deal with his guilt, asks the old man if he can help out for free. The Bobers, who didn’t get a good look at Frank’s face during the holdup, don’t make the connection; still, Morris’ wife, Ida (Joan Plowright), is initially opposed to the idea. But Morris eventually hires Frank as his assistant for a meager wage.
Matters are complicated when Frank becomes increasingly attracted to the Bobers’ daughter, Helen (Kate Greenhouse). Drama comes to a head when Morris discovers the truth about Frank, and rest of pic involves Frank’s attempt to make peace with the family.
Scripter-director Daniel Petrie moves the story along at a fairly languid pace, and the moral points are hammered home with little subtlety. While “The Assistant” remains a reasonably affecting tale about making tough ethical choices, the message is delivered here with scant inspiration. Pic’s problems are accentuated by a couple of less-than-stellar performances, with both Bellows and Plowright seeming ill-at-ease in their roles.
Mueller-Stahl, as usual, is a real screen presence, and newcomer Greenhouse is also quite intense as Helen.
Art director John Dondertman and costume designer Linda Muir have done a good job of creating a believable Depression look for this Toronto-shot pic, while Lawrence Shragge’s music has an unfortunate tendency to veer toward the syrupy.