Joyce Glasser reviews Late Night (June 7, 2019), Cert. 15, 101 min.
Emma Thompson (The Remains of the Day, Howard’s End) elevates every film she is in to a slightly higher plane, especially those that need the uplift like Love Actually, Saving Mr Banks and Nisha Ganatra’s Late Night in which she co-stars with script writer Mindy Kaling. The idea behind Late Night is more sophisticated and topical than with most high concept films, but also more difficult to pull off. Katherine Newbury’s (Thompson) long-running late night talk show is facing the axe when it is given a new lease on life by an ethnic minority female industry outsider. Late Night, has more laughs than your average comedy and is very entertaining, but it loses focus and leaves an ambiguous message, while the humour turns to sentimentality.
Newbury is the only female with a late night talk show (in this, art is imitating life) and while it has been going for a remarkable 28 years, even Katherine’s husband, retired NYU professor Walter (John Lithgow, wonderful), who has Parkinson’s Disease, has to admit that it has been treading water for at least the past decade.
While Katherine is accused of failing to take risks, avoiding personal politics and being out of touch with today’s viewers, she is also known as a ‘woman who hates women.’ The unmotivated and cynical all-male writing team might have tried pitching new ideas a long time ago, but the down side, being sacked, isn’t worth it when the upside is so uncertain. No one dares risk the wrath of a boss who gives Devil Wears Prada boss Meryl Streep a run for her money.
If Streep was daunting, Thompson is outwardly scary with her perfectly delivered hilarious asides, and her acerbic wit and biting rejoinders that hint at the talent we never see when the cameras are on her.
While rumours spread that Katherine will be replaced by a young, male, sexist airhead (Ike Barinholtz) who is so bad, you doubt the threat is real, it is the ultimatum personally delivered by female VP Caroline Morton that forces Katherine to face her show’s mortality. Katherine calls in Brad (Denis O’Hare) her long-suffering, trusted, ‘safe pair of hands’ to improve the show’s diversity profile.
The winner of Brad’s recruitment competition is Molly Patel (Kaling) whose very presence summons up every fish-out-of-water movie you’ve seen, while the central relationship between Molly and Katherine resembles the pitiless boss vs. bright new, principled recruit in the Devil Wears Prada. But these clichés work wonders here, and the film is initially hilarious. Molly is open game, if for no other reason than she heralds from Pennsylvania where worked as an Efficiency Expert in a chemical plant. Molly is also a big Newbury fan, volunteers with a stand up comic club, and wants nothing more than to apply her efficiency skills to Katherine’s struggling programme.
Molly faces more hurdles than her non-industry background. She is plump, has little style sense, no boyfriend, and arrives in the office like Wendy administering homemade cakes to the Lost Boys. But Molly is savvy enough to know she is the token ethnic minority female and just has to work harder than everyone else to get past that point. At a press conference in Katherine’s swanky, Upper East Side townhouse, she comes to Katherine’s rescue defying the sceptical journalists ready to call Katherine’s bluff.
So far so good and as long as this tension between Katherine and Patel and the writing team is maintained, the laughs roll along nicely. We see a series of attempts to make the show more hip backfire. On one occasion when they bring in a young, female, YouTube star, Katherine’s poker face fails her and the insecure star indignantly walks out, calling Katherine ‘old’. You can just see Caroline Morton writing out the severance pay cheque.
A subplot in the second part of the film when Molly starts dating ladies’ man Charlie Fain (Hugh Dancy) from the writing team is romcom fun, although it leads us to start questioning whose story this really is, a question that is never really answered.
When a big deal is made of a leaked rumour that Katherine and Charlie were lovers, the film turns soppy as Katherine decides to stand exposed before TV viewers (of which Walter is one) in a public apology and affirmation of her humanity. Would a male talk show host ever do that? A private discussion about the quickie affair when Walter was ill, between Katherine and Walter is far more classy, exposing the tight, supportive relationship that this childless couple enjoy. But, beautifully acted as it is, the whole subplot adds nothing to the central conceit.
We are on a firmer track when Katherine surprises Molly and her audience by showing up a stand up comic club night that Molly is hosting. When Molly invites Katherine on stage, we squirm as she awkwardly tries out old jokes and fails to make the young audience laugh. Then suddenly, under the spot light and feeling personally humiliated, she opens up. She brings in her age and her precarious employment status turning it from self-pity to fresh, confident humour that connects to the responsive audience.
While her spontaneous act is not funny enough, it gives us, and Katherine, an idea of how the programme has to change, something the film is not always clear about. What no one is talking about, however, is a bigger issue than what hip, sexist male comic will replace Katherine. VP Morton should be worried about keeping the advertisers on board with the challenge from all the streaming, on-demand channels and changing viewer patterns. Niche counter-programming might just be the way.
Kaling, 39, is a real life TV comedy writer on The Office (US version) and writer/star of her own show, The Mindy Project making her feature film debut as a writer and actress with Late Night. Thompson, 60, is herself an accomplished script writer, author and A-list film star. There is something here that smacks of art imitating life or vice versa and that makes the ‘friendship’ between two very different women in different stages of life both unbelievable and a tad creepy. Upstart Molly running around like a combination of Dr Ruth, Frasier Crane, Mary Poppins and Florence Nightingale to save Katherine Newbury becomes somewhat patronising. In media companies the world over the well-wired, energetic, bright young things are replacing anyone over 50 without the façade of Molly’s benevolence.
You can watch the film trailer here: