Later this month marks the release of Yesterday, a musical fantasy about a musician who wakes up in a world where the Beatles never existed. It speaks to the sad state of network TV that a seemingly grounded film like Late Night also falls into the fantasy camp.
Late Night is a workplace dramedy written by Mindy Kaling and directed by Nisha Ganatra. Pretty straight forward so far, right? But the plot centres on something America’s late-night scene still hasn’t produced: a major network show hosted by a woman. The lady in question is Katherine Newbury (portrayed by acting goddess Emma Thompson). The character combines Oprah’s social activism with Ellen’s comedy career and hosts a program similar to Leno-era The Tonight Show. This woman might as well be a unicorn.
Katherine has racked up countless awards over her career, and she’s a hero to millions. But times are changing, and she’s out of touch with the current generation of viewers. Part of this is her own stubbornness. She thinks she’s enlightening viewers with her thoughtful topics, but the viewers (who we’re told watch the show on their phones) only care about segments that go viral – like a woman who sniffs her dog’s butt.
Katherine has it all together while on stage; a charming, passionate, and funny host. But that’s a facade. Off the air, she’s calculating, short-tempered, and not interested in the people around her aside from her adoring husband Walter (John Lithgow).
Things aren’t going so well for Katherine or the show. Walter is sick, Katherine’s boss is on her ass over the show’s ratings slump, and life gets even more awkward when Molly (Mindy Kaling) joins the writing staff. Molly doesn’t know she is a diversity hire meant to change the optics of Katherine’s all-male and all-white writer’s room.
Molly hasn’t worked in a writer’s room before and hasn’t been jaded by the industry. And she brings her unique perspective to the creative process – usually pointing out the show’s flaws. Katherine, the curmudgeon and Molly, her peppy underling must find common ground if they have any shot of rekindling the show’s magic.
Late Night plays it safe as far as feel-good dramedy flicks go. If you’re a rom-com fan, it hits all the warm and familiar beats you expect from the genre. You see the remnants of rom-com DNA all over this picture. Swap out office romance for mutual respect between a boss and their employee, and you get the picture. It’s a rock-solid, though predictable and overdone format. But what makes this film pop are the accoutrements; Kaling’s breezy script and Thompson’s dazzling performance.
First, let’s pick nits. Late Night feels closer to a TV sitcom than a theatrical feature. It’s a well-polished, though visually unimaginative production. I realize this is less of an issue for the majority of viewers who will stream this movie at home. Ganatra opts to make Katherine’s corner of the entertainment industry feel small and dull. She pulls back the curtain to reveal the day-to-day grind of being in a TV writer’s room. What sounds like a glamorous job is, in fact mundane and soul-crushing. The workspace is an overwhelming sprawl of clutter, coffee cups, and swivel chairs.
Late Night’s vision of New York never looks all that exciting, either, even when seen through Molly’s bright eyes. They may as well have shot it on an NBC sound stage. Lesley Barber’s score doesn’t help jazz things up either. The soulless, dull, and inoffensive tunes fail to heighten what’s happening onscreen. But these are nitpicks for a film that works well 85% of the time.
It’s disappointing that we don’t see more movie characters like Katherine Newbury. She’s tough to handle, bull-headed, and delightfully complicated; a direct response to the one-dimensional female characters Hollywood usually churns out. She’s a first-class dick who is awful towards nice people. But these are her most prominent traits. What makes Katherine standout from most other difficult female characters is that she isn’t any one thing. She possesses many layers which make her more than some shallow workplace tyrant.
Like the many difficult men who appear on film, we don’t have to fall in love with this character. Her arc isn’t about softening her edges to please a man or punish her for being a shrew.
Thompson puts on an acting masterclass. She makes her transformation into Katherine Newbury look effortless. Many actors have played comedians, but few have played them well. More times than not, their performances ring false. Comedians spend decades perfecting their craft, and it shows through their commanding stage presence and razor-sharp comedic timing. When most actors attempt to fill a comedian’s shoes, it feels off. That’s not the case with Thompson who knocks it out of the park.
When Katherine is on stage, her eyes probe the crowd with a predator’s intensity. You see comedians like Dave Chappelle and Bill Burr flash this look all the time. You can tell she’s probing the audience, reading the room, changing her set on the fly. Thompson is repeating jokes from Late Night’s script, but you can almost see the gears turning in Katherine’s head as she works the room. It’s fascinating to watch.
Kaling’s Molly is the heart of the film and the audience’s point of view character. Kaling wrote a role that plays to her acting strengths; a charming dork who borders on obnoxious. She’s a fish out of water professionally (having never worked in comedy) and personally (the only woman and POC in an all-male writer’s room). The character makes a lovable underdog who you root for the second she shows up. Kaling and Thompson have great chemistry, and the film is at its best when the duo shares the screen.
Late Night tackles today’s hot button issues – inclusive hiring, #MeToo, slut-shaming – rather bluntly. And it feels like cheating when messy story elements get wrapped up all neat and tidy. But great characters, witty jokes, and a talented cast more than make up for these minor flaws.