Late Night, 2019.
Directed by Nisha Ganatra.
Starring Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, John Lithgow, Reid Scott, Amy Ryan, Denis O’Hare, Hugh Dancy, Max Casella, Paul Walter Hauser, John Early, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Blake DeLong, Jia Patel, Bill Maher, Seth Meyers, Annaleigh Ashford, Halston Sage, and Ike Barinholtz.
A late-night talk-show host suspects that she may soon lose her long-running show.
Hopefully, everyone has come to the conclusion that humor and the designation of what’s funny are subjective; it’s intriguing to watch a film aware of that ideology. With ratings tanking and interest dropping off the charts, aging Englishwoman Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) invites a fictional popular YouTube celebrity onto her titular late-night talk show, but instead of using this exchange as a moment to punch down on the less sophisticated and more teenage targeted comedy, the script (written by co-star Mindy Kaling, who is all kinds of appropriate for penning the situational workplace comedy on hand) sticks to its guns painting Katherine as an out of touch shrill unable to relate to anyone or anything from her faded generation. As someone who generally finds most YouTube sketches tacky and too lowbrow, the film even surprised me, placing me firmly in the corner of the type of personality I might not like but can find some measure of respect based on the endless amount of factors that go into comedy.
Directed by Nisha Ganatra (a fitting collaborator from Mindy seeing both have worked on highly successful comedic TV shows and bring the all-important female perspective to the film’s themes), Late Night disappointingly never really takes advantage of the number of relevant topics it brings to the table. For some perspective, quite a few characters show their prejudices both directly and indirectly to Molly (Mindy Kaling pulling double duty playing a diversity hire to the all men writing staff chasing her dream of working with Katherine, who despite being a curmudgeon has clearly influenced her personal life emotionally and for the better), but there’s never any comeuppance. It also doesn’t help that, although there is a pertinent and funny joke in the writing staff being made up of straight white males, it sometimes makes all of the characters blend together so no one stands out (save for Paul Walter Hauser, who can steal a scene from anyone).
Late Night does succeed whenever we are in the writing room getting a look at the creative process of what is a bunch of yes men whipping up serviceable material for Katherine; there are plenty of jokes that land (the writers are all referred to as numbers because the host can’t be bothered to learn the names of the talent working for her) while Molly attempts to push Katherine into revealing more of her personal self during her act. Obviously, that’s not an easy thing to do, but it does touch on the importance of boldness and strongly worded opinions making for the best content. And not just that, but the kind of raw unfiltered content that will keep people wanting to tune in. A message like that is also not just limited to comedy, but also goes for any variation of writing.
Unfortunately, the film seems disinterested in focusing on those aspects; they seem to come and go just as quickly as a pointless love interest Molly finds in a subplot that goes nowhere. The same goes for the analysis of the writing process, or the thoughtful examination of different brands of comedy (Ike Barinholts is basically impersonating Dane Cook and is the person set to take over the talk show, and even he gets shafted in terms of screen time). Late Night acknowledges a variety of topical issues; one of Molly’s ideas to rejuvenate the show is by featuring a ‘white savior’ bit which gets a few laughs, but also doesn’t further any of the messages being expressed. It’s hard to dislike a comedy that occasionally delves into the TV show writing process for stubborn and unaware head honchos (the writing process depicted in Late Night is how I imagine what writing for WWE must be like, with Katherine standing in for Vince McMahon), but the film could have been more than really funny.
Slightly missed potential is fine; maybe Mindy Kaling got so excited writing her first script that she tried to cram too much into the narrative. Regardless, the third act of Late Night turns a corner for the worse, seemingly abandoning its study of late-night comedy to give a few thoughts on #MeToo and slut-shaming executed with randomness. This metamorphosis might have worked if the film spent more time on the characters crucial to the plot development, but it treats them as afterthoughts until the script demands them to enter the spotlight.
Emma Thompson is a riot as Katherine, tearing down everyone in her path as the crude protagonist that’s easy to root for based on charisma alone. You want to see her adapt to modern times without changing a lick of her blunt and sardonic personality. Meanwhile, Mindy Kaling grounds the proceedings with some humanity and a reminder that it’s not always wise to meet your inspirations (unless you have a chance to better them I suppose). Their chemistry carries the movie, but the dynamic between them and the entire work environment fails at becoming the sledgehammer to toxicity it clearly wants to be. However, there is one message Late Night gets right, which is you won’t get anywhere unless you speak your mind and play to your strengths, whether it be Katherine embracing her age and unique perspective for humor or Molly applying her quality-control experience to buffer her idol’s routine
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com