A film review by Craig J. Koban June 25, 2019

LATE NIGHT jjj

2019, R, 102 mins.

 

Emma Thompson as Katherine Newbury  /  Mindy Kaling as Molly Patel  /  John Lithgow as Walter Lovell  /  Reid Scott as Tom Campbell  /  Amy Ryan as Caroline Morton  /  Denis O'Hare as Brad  /  Hugh Dancy as Charlie Fain  /  Max Casella as Burditt  /  Ike Barinholtz as Daniel Tennant

Directed by Nisha Ganatra  /  Written by Mindy Kaling

LATE NIGHT is an intelligently written, wonderfully acted, and hilariously insightful workplace comedy that feels like a most joyous and welcome antidote to the current summer film season's witless remakes and wrongheaded sequels.  

It's not only a riotously funny expose on the behind the scenes mechanizations of a fictitious late night talk show program, but is also a highly topical and relevant tale of how race, gender, and modern feminism figures into a male dominated profession.  LATE NIGHT is one of the very few comedies to recently emerge that scores legitimate laughs while thoughtfully commenting on intriguing themes the struggles that women face in an entertainment industry populated by men that may or may not want them there. 

That, and it's a deeply personal film for writer and star Mindy Kaling, who has faced her own power playing struggles in the TV and film industry while trying to make a bankable name for herself.  For her, cementing herself as a proven asset in her field is not just about gender inclusion, but race inclusion as well.  LATE NIGHT chronicles a semi-biographical storyline focusing on a young woman of color desperately trying to break into TV while facing many substantial barriers.  Obviously enough, this tale hits Kaling close to home, seeing as she began her career modestly by being hired on NBC's THE OFFICE as a writer, which eventually segued into starring roles on the small and silver screen.  It's pretty clear early on while watching LATE NIGHT that Kaling has an absolute knack for showing the cultural and gender divide that typifies many a writer's room, not to mention the frequently demoralizing aspect of them coming off as a male dominated frat house that simply doesn't welcome women in with compassionate open arms. 

 

 

The premise of LATE NIGHT is painted with somewhat broad and familiar strokes, but it's the way Kaling's razor sharp screenplay accentuates those brush marks that really counts.  The film tells the story of an aging British female late night talk show host named Katherine Newbury (in a bravura performance of the year candidate by Emma Thompson), whose been the popular host of her own program for decades and has won nearly every single award imaginable.  Her motto is "Excellence Without Compromise," which is refreshing, but her lack of willingness to book - shall we say - more sensationalistic guests has started to hurt her in the ratings (she'd rather have a Presidential historian on her show than a up-and-coming YouTube star made famous for petty stunts).  As her show spirals downwards in terms of popularity, the network president (a superb Amy Ryan) gives Katherine the bad news that she'll be forced into early retirement at the end of her show's current season.  Even more mortifying to Katherine is that she's poised to be replaced by a misogynist comedian (Ike Barinholtz) that represents everything she loathes in the industry. 

All of this forces Katherine on the ferocious offensive, which begins with confiding in her right hand man in Brad (Denis O'Hare) to strategize a comeback plan to make her show hip again, which involves her having daily meetings with her all male writing staff, all of whom she has barely met, let alone ever spoken personally to.  On top of that, Brad recommends that Katherine adds a female to this staff, seeing as she has a reputation for being both a snooty and elitist Brit and a woman hiring hater (considering that Katherine is a staunch feminist, she really has no excuse for having her show's writers made up exclusive of white men).  Katherine begrudgingly acquiesces to Brad's plan, and lets him hire the first female applicant with a pulse, and in steps in Molly (Kaling), a very unlikely and frankly inexperienced candidate that's essentially hired because she fits the profile.  She has zero TV writing street cred and previously worked as a chemical plant efficiency manager.  Yet, she has a passionate desire to learn and achieve workplace excellence, not to mention that she hero worships Katherine to unending levels.  She has an awful lot of an uphill battle, though: She's all but despised by her 99.99% male colleagues and Katherine initially sees her as a petty diversity hire. 

There's an awfully lot to unpack in the densely plotted LATE NIGHT, but the opening of the film is so economically strong in terms of getting audiences into the mindsets of both Katherine and Molly, both of whom are, yes, women that are fighting for their career lives when facing eminent termination.  And the introductory stages of Molly's first few days are predictably debasing, mostly because the men around her perceive her as a petty affirmative action hire.  Her hyper honesty in writer's pitch meetings when it comes to why Katherine's show has been free-falling for years doesn't help her cause either.  Molly's story arc is a familiar one in terms of beats, but this is made up for when it comes to how shrewdly Katherine is written as a compelling and multi-layered character by Kaling.  Katherine echoes many of the intimidating vibes of a similar power playing character that Meryl Streep played in THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA, one whose influence and stature is feared by those working under her.  Yet, for as much outward confidence that Katherine embodies as a principled comic that won't bow down to lowering her standards, she nevertheless is in a deeply vulnerable place where if she doesn't change with the times she'll become a late night talk show host dinosaur.  Katherine has the facade of a tenaciously predatory women in charge, but deep down she's plagued with job insecurities and anxiety's about her future...just like any other woman (Molly included). 

One of the more complicated subplots involves Katherine's past unfaithfulness to her loving Parkinson's suffering husband, Walter (a pitch perfect John Lithgow), an always nurturing supporter of his wife and her work.  When Katherine's adultery creeps into social media water color talk and then explodes everywhere, this not only creates damaging riffs in her private relationship with Walter, but it also rears its ugly head in the form of her being in the center of an inverse #MeToo moment where she used her stature to have her way with a lowly writer on staff.  Just about everyone vehemently recommends Katherine to all but avoid talking publicly about it, whereas Molly wisely and tactically advises Katherine to instead go with it and prove to the world that a strong and empowered woman is capable of sinful mistakes and owning up to them.  In short, Katherine should confess to her cheating ways and honestly talk to her audience about her frailties as a person. 

It's probably of no surprise to anyone if I tell you what Katherine decides to do, and on many levels LATE NIGHT navigates its narrative in a fairly preordained fashion.  For as incredibly well oiled as some subplots are here, there are unfortunately a few others that don't quite work as well, like one involving a potential romance with a fellow co-writer in Charlie (Hugh Dancy) that's never really developed and paid off as well as it should have (he's more of a prop used to propel the plot forward than he is a well rounded and interesting character).  But, again, its the thematic ambitiousness of Kaling's script that helps overwrite some petty creative nitpicks, and LATE NIGHT has a considerable amount on its mind about that ebbs and flows of modern feminism and how the entertainment industry is in desperate need of a race and gender inclusiveness overhaul.  It also rightfully represents how old institutions like late night talk shows - even ones with women at the helm quarterbacking it all - can fail because their relatively backwards minded sausage fests in creative departments behind the scenes. 

The performances are key to helping set this film's agenda, and Kaling is as winning as ever as the chip on her shoulder and driven to prove herself Molly.  But LATE NIGHT is utterly owned by Emma Thompson's delightfully droll and wickedly intimidating performance as Katherine, and it's a thanklessly delicate balancing act for the veteran in terms of authentically relaying this woman's take no prisoner's vindictiveness while simultaneously imbuing her with fragile hidden layers that are destroying her from the inside out.  Thompson also displays unimpeachable comic timing (her multiple acid tongued insults are a thing of vulgar poetic beauty here), but she never becomes a one note monster of wanton cruelty either.  Thompson's Oscar worthy turn and Kaling's richly nuanced script are the aces up LATE NIGHT's sleeves, which ultimately helps elevate itself well above workplace comedy genre troupes.  And the fact that it's peppered with huge laughs as well as compelling insights about sexual politics in and outside of the workplace is what makes the film such an absolute, diamond in the rough delicacy.  

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