1 Hr., 42 Mins.
Late Night June 21, 2019
hortly after turning 60, Emma Thompson experienced something of a midlife crisis. “The eternal question, which I never thought I’d ask, is who am I?” she told Cara Buckley of the New York Times recently. “I was always so sure. As it turns out, I have no idea.” The character Thompson plays in Late Night (2019), a fickle new backstage comedy written by Mindy Kaling, who also stars in the film, is, fittingly, also having
something of an identity crisis. In the movie, Thompson is Katherine Newbury, a talk-show host. Katherine, in the vein of David Letterman, has been a dominant cultural force for almost 30 years, a perennial Emmy winner. As the film opens, though, she's in the midst of a dry spell, and one that's lasted for more than a decade. Ratings are slipping, jokes no longer draw blood. Totally uninterested in doing bits and remotes like her popular peers, and pointedly rejecting any sort of presence on social media, Katherine essentially does the show for herself. These days, she's wont to have on people like the acclaimed biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin rather than a bigwig like Robert Downey, Jr., for instance.
Dramatic changes need to be made if she's going to stay on the air. People have moved past simply not caring about her show. Now they're starting to get mad at her for appearing to not care either. Keep pulling shit like this and she’s doing to be replaced, and by someone far less savvy than her, as the network head, played by the scene-stealing Amy Ryan, reminds her. (Early in the film, Katherine discovers that the network is eyeing the Ike Barinholtz-portrayed stand-up Daniel Tennant, whose brand of comedy is misogynistic, xenophobic, and stereotypically bro-ey.)
This fact, combined with an incident where one of her male writers, whom she fires in the first act, accuses her of being a misogynist, Katherine decides that she can combat both a perceived lack of writers'-room diversity and stale delivery by hiring a woman. Impulsively, Katherine’s right-hand man, Brad (Dennis O’Hare), gives a seat to an aspiring comedienne named Molly Patel (Kaling), who also happens to be the first person interviewed. Molly has no experience working in TV comedy (currently she’s holding her own at a chemical plant, telling goofy jokes to a captive audience) but seems smart and driven enough to at the very least succeed as a temporary hire.
Molly’s place on staff unsurprisingly ruffles some feathers. All of Katherine’s writers are white men, and almost all of them condescend to Molly, thinking she’s purely a diversity hire. “I wish I was a woman of color so I could just get the job I want,” a mouth-breathing colleague (Paul Walter Hauser) complains. But Molly quickly proves herself a necessary asset. Having been a fan of Katherine’s since childhood, Molly knows exactly when her boss shines brightest — when she’s offering her takes on politics and culture, things she’s for the most part stopped doing in the last decade out of a fear of being unlikable — and immediately offers some perfectly reasonable ideas that might help her new boss get her groove back.
Helping Katherine get her groove back might be considered a Sisyphean task, though. Katherine is so ornery that she refuses to learn any of the names of her writers, referring to them exclusively by number. And when Molly tells her what could be improved in an early scene, Katherine is melodramatically mean back, mouthing off platitudes about how she’s been doing this for 30 years and you’ve been doing this for 30 minutes and things like that.
But once Katherine warms up and eases into realizing that Molly has a point when she says that maybe she should be more considerate of her demographic, more willing to do segments that could go viral, and that she should be more political and re-think her fairly anti-feminist world view, ratings dramatically increase. Katherine’s show, once something people forgot was still on, is declared must-see television.
On paper, Late Night sounds like it, akin to Katherine’s newly refurbished show, would make for must-see entertainment. Kaling is an obvious choice as both the writer and star. She worked first as one of the head writers and then main stars of the United States’ version of the workplace lark The Office (2004-2012); she then turned her attention to The Mindy Project (2012-2017), an underrated sitcom she created and acted in. Thompson, among the most engaging and witty of performers and writers, makes so much sense as a late-night-talk-show host that you wonder, when reading the plot summary and then while watching her play mock MC, why she actually isn’t one.
But the movie flails. It’s watchable but more so disjointed as a workplace romp; it’s amusing but strikingly unfunny as a comedy. (The jokes that revive Katherine’s show are just as stale as the ones which have lent themselves to its downfall.) Though Kaling has almost exclusively worked on television, the film radiates a feeling that no one involved has much of an idea of how running a talk show works.
Kaling and Thompson are individually good. The characteristically boisterous Thompson compels particularly because Kaling writes her an emotionally compelling part in which we get a glimpse of her off-the-set self-hatred and her fragile marriage to the pianist Walter (John Lithgow), who’s suffering from the early stages of Parkinson's disease. But Thompson and Kaling, despite working closely to build the Katherine character, have negligible chemistry as an odd couple who seems to hate just as much as love each other.
The film, too, is aiming to say something about the difficulties of working in television, especially when you're a women. It also reiterates that positive change, both behind the scenes and in front of the camera, is much more possible when you have a diverse writers' room. But all of this is underdeveloped — the conceits good but malnourished, narrowly touched on. The movie’s holistically uneven, too. Is this supposed to be a farce about professional dysfunction or a serious drama about what it’s like surviving as a minority working in show business? It’s possible for it to be both, but Late Night tonally pinballs too jerkily. Thompson and Kaling anchor the feature as much as they can, but eventually the ground breaks and then consumes them. C