LATE NIGHT (2019)
Starring Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, Amy Ryan, John Lithgow, Max Casella, Hugh Dancy, Ike Barinholtz, Denis O’Hare, Reid Scott, Paul Walter Hauser, John Early, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Annaleigh Ashford, Halston Sage, Marc Kudisch, Luke Slattery, Blake DeLong, Jia Patel, David Neal Levin, Jake Tapper, Bill Maher and Seth Meyers.
Screenplay by Mindy Kaling.
Directed by Nisha Ganatra.
Distributed by Amazon Studios. 102 minutes. Rated R.
If you take a formula storyline and do an above-average job with it, is it still formula?
Case in point: Mindy Kaling’s new comedy Late Night. We’ve all seen the basic storyline before – young unexperienced woman gets her dream job in a huge media conglomerate and is able to help to reinvent the place, all the while dealing with a tyrannical boss who eventually comes to respect her work. In the last 15 years, this basic plotline has been used often, including films like Morning Glory and The Devil Wears Prada.
So, there is nothing really new here. However, writer/star Kaling takes the idea and runs with it, creating a charming – if not particularly surprising – little film. Perhaps that’s good enough.
The secret weapon of Late Night is Emma Thompson, who gets her strongest comic role in years and seems to relish it.
She plays Katherine Newbury, once a cutting-edge comedian who has now settled into a role as a mostly harmless and inoffensive late-night TV host. (Picture Jay Leno in a dress.) After years of stagnating as the safe face of late-night comedy, ratings are starting to fall, and the new head of programming for the network (Amy Ryan) lets Newbury know that her act has grown old. The network is currently negotiating with a Dane Cook wannabe foul-mouthed shock comedian (Ike Barinholtz) to replace her in the hosting chair.
Newbury’s head writer suggests that the problem is that the show itself has become homogenized. The writing room is made up of middle-class white guys that Newbury barely even knows, so how can they write about her? (Newbury refers to the writers by numbers rather than learn their names.) In their search for a new writer after Newbury petulantly fires an older writer (for the admittedly misguided attempt to get paternity leave because his wife has just had another child), it is strongly suggested that they make a diversity hire.
Enter Molly Patel, a sweet and slightly insecure woman with a dream and absolutely no experience. (She sites making co-workers laugh at her Pennsylvania plant as her one previous job in comedy.) However, because she checks two of the diversity boxes – she is not only a woman, but of Indian heritage – they decide to give her a shot. Katherine will try to get to know her so that she can try to write in Katherine’s voice. However, she is put on a very tight leash. If Katherine feels it is not working, for any reason, Molly will be fired.
Cue up the inevitable starting disasters and scenes of Molly learning on the job, researching Katherine and slowly but surely becoming very competent at her job. In the meantime, her very presence changes the vibe in the writers’ room. The skits get edgier, more political, less safe. They take on such charged subjects as Planned Parenthood, #MeToo, immigration and more.
The ratings start to rise at the same time that the network is ready to announce the change of hosts. However, instead of being the good soldier that she always has been, Newbury decides to take the fight to keep her job public.
Kaling has worked in television for years and she knows this world. (She was briefly on the writing staff of Saturday Night Live, before writing and acting in The Office, The Mindy Project and the upcoming Hulu adaptation of Four Weddings and a Funeral). And while it is a slightly sanitized look at the lifestyle, Late Night does have a lot of interesting things to say.
Sadly, Kaling saves the least interesting role for herself. Molly is a sweet cypher, someone who puts everyone else’s needs above her own.
However, overall Late Night is a terrifically enjoyable film, and Emma Thompson hits this one out of the park. Here’s hoping she goes back to doing more comedy.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2019 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: June 14, 2019.