[AN OFFICIAL SELECTION FROM THE 2019 SEATTLE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL]
Late night television isn’t so much cutthroat nowadays as it would’ve been during the Leno/Letterman wars of the mid-90s. Yet, if you’re venerable English comedienne Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson), her own war has just begun. The host of Tonight with Katherine Newbury has been in the chair a long time, pushing 25 years. But her identity with a modern American viewing audience has declined rather sharply in the past decade. Incoming network president Caroline Morton (Amy Ryan) has one mere objective in response: drop Katherine, get some new blood into their midnight chat show. The clock is then ticking to save the sinking ship, in the comic adventure that is Late Night.
Newbury’s tastes in humor, and in guests may mirror the long-developed trust of Dr. Stephen T. Colbert, only way less relevant, and aging poorly. Even worse, the writer’s room, a loyal group of all white males with long tenures have little communication with their captain, the team only churning out flatlining jokes for the paycheck. In desperation, the sharp-tongued, quick to judge Newbury inadvertently attends to the “internalized sexism” spot on the film’s trope bingo card and hire a woman writer to shake up the sandbox.
Enter the film’s screenwriter Mindy Kaling as the cheerful, punctual Molly Patel, a former Pennsylvanian, and chemical plant QC specialist. A random corporate loophole gets her in the door; the immediate orders of Newbury’s toadying second-in-command Brad (Denis O’Hare) push her further. Once she’s in the bullpen, her starstruckedness overshadows the hidden toxicity her comic hero has reinforced; direct, firm, yet also cold and slightly uncaring. Molly sees a delicate challenge, therefore, breaking down a few overtly subtle workplace dynamics while rejuvenating Katherine’s joke style and even creating fittingly viral recurring segments. Hero’s work, really, until we see Morton’s teeth bared and her ideal replacement in mind, a crass, crude, lowbrow male comedian (Ike Barenholtz) just in it for the big break.
Kaling has never shied away from demolishing common barriers in her written works, going back to The Office. This is her shot at taking down the staunchly, starch-shirted, male-dominated news media, and the deep end of its satirical byproducts; as both the leading star and screenwriter, she excels with an honest bravery, destroying the idol of false approval, to be replaced with a naysayer who can speak the truth, give Katherine a reason to remodel herself in the process, and not just the show, overly Fallon-esque as it becomes with time. That same motivation, however, wears itself out in small doses near the very end, the finale not landing as well as anyone would hope, a slight insincerity hitting, but not enough to fully sour the journey, thank goodness.
The only thing strong enough to bolster the rapid-fire charade between host and the supposed “token hire writer” is a wonderfully enjoyable supporting cast, led handsomely by John Lithgow, Katherine’s steady hubby, a former musician plagued by cancer and a stem of controversy. The latter of which appropriately serves timely, if not forced upon subplot which the latter third relies too heavily on to push through. Of course, Miss Ryan (Steve Carell’s eventual Office schoolboy crush) is a treat in her own right, notably when her claws are out and ready to pounce. We don’t get many opportunities for that level of performance precision, however. The rest of the writers’ room, most of whom initially resent Molly’s presence (expectedly enough), and all with their own decisive issues; Reid Scott and Hugh Dancy may stand out the best as far as their acting chops, or the worst as far as their character motives. There’s not really a specific antagonist one should root for, but if we had to it’d be Dancy’s Charlie Fain.
Kaling’s script hodgepodges through multiple compelling themes, while maintaining a steady flow between plot elements. She and Thompson are still very much front-and-center by the end of Late Night, an ebullient mismatch that simply doesn’t deserve each other. The superfan learning from her greatest inspiration, and a venerable TV legend learning a thing or two from the most unexpected source. Its relevance felt in sharp, piercing ripples; its humor not always easy to pinpoint. To the many who’d imagined what a 30 Rock movie could look like, Kaling and Ganatra deliver the closest thing we could expect to see for the time being. It is slightly fractured, hokey, a little cringey; but what workplace wouldn’t have those moments while improving its diversity in this modern time?
For me, that’s the winning line gracefully pushing Late Night over the top. That and Miss Thompson being the tough-as-brass boss much fear, but many would still want to light that fire of productivity, preferably in more agreeable circumstances. She may need a little leg up in trying to be funny in a new, more viral, more fast-paced era for consumers, but she certainly doesn’t need a lesson in how to be hilarious to start with. Bottom line, the early Oscar buzz she’s earning, it’s well justified, and their sharp edge of comic insanity proves deliberate enough to revisit again and again. (3.5/5 Horns Up)
Late Night expands into nationwide release this weekend; rated R for language throughout and some sexual references; 102 minutes.