2019 | rated R | starring Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, Denis O’Hare, Hugh Dancy | directed by Nisha Ganatra | 1 hr 42 mins |
Late Night attempts to sink it’s teeth into the satirical possibilities of the inner workings behind a late night comedy talk show. It’s story and it’s characters are packed to the gills with contradictions because the politics of the people behind it are full of contradictions. In their every day life this doesn’t matter to them, but when trying to put together a cohesive movie it produces glaring blindspots in the character motives and messages the movie is trying to deliver while also trying to move along a story. A lot of movies are like this – the recent Emma Thompson-written Last Christmas is like this – but under Mindy Kaling’s pen, Late Night is far more self aware of it’s contradictions, even holding them up for us to debate, then most movies of this kind. If you come away from the movie arguing with it’s depiction of media tokenism, ageism, sexism and comedy that would be the point. Unfortunately, the movie is only half realized, doesn’t know how to advance the narrative and doesn’t do anything about them. Much like it’s main character, it’s fit to critique industry flaws, but has no solutions.
“Tonight with Katherine Newbury” is a legendary late night show now in it’s death throws. Kate Newbury (Emma Thompson, damn good) is approached by the new network president (Amy Ryan) and told the slide has come to an end and this will be her last year. Meanwhile, Newbury has fired her latest assistant for being called a sexist and has tasked her head writer (Denis O’Hare) with hiring a woman. The first one who walks through the door is Molly (Mindy Kaling), with no previous experience, who has some ideas to help shake up the dying show.
Late Night feels familiar. It neither has the satirical bend of Network or The King of Comedy nor the warm character story of Broadcast News. It’s a very clinical, academic movie, like a diversity course thesis brought to the screen. What makes it work as much as it does is due to Emma Thompson’s portrayal of Katherine Newberry. Both in the performance that undergoes some great character battering as the movie goes on and in the choice one-liners Kaling givers her to dash off at the state of comedy and internet culture, Thompson drives this movie almost single-handedly. She’s as great here as she was bad in Last Christmas and the character is truly flawed and truly grows over the course of the story, a basic little quality rarely given to the “strong female character” Hollywood often only pays lip service to.
As much attention as writer Kaling and director Nisha Ganatra pay to Newbury, they pay less attention to Molly as the upstart comedy writer. Kaling writes Molly as the comic spark of life who comes into the stale “rich, white male” writers room and shakes it up with new bits that prove to be a hit. She breaks every rule and is always right for it. She offers up very little and the most handsome writer in the room immediately tries to date her. Yes, Kaling has literally written herself into the film as a Mary Sue. The definition of a Mary Sue in the dictionary is not as straight forward and obvious as what she has done here. Does she know? Is she that self aware? That, I can’t tell.
One of the film’s inherent contradictions is that it mocks the idea that Molly would be a diversity hire while at the same time making her character the worst kind of diversity hire. Her background is telling jokes over the loudspeaker at the chemical plant she works for and writing an essay to the president of the parent company. If the movie wanted to make a clearer point about diversity quotas it would show Molly as a struggling comic who is talented but isn’t given the chance because of her gender or race. Instead it’s the opposite. She is hired with no qualifications and complains that on the first day she isn’t able to immediately voice her criticism and turnover the apple card. The guys in the writers room are shown to have spent years adapting to Katherine Newberry’s rigid demands and requirements, repressing their opinions just to survive. She thinks on day one she should be able to do whatever she wants and if she can’t it must be sexism. The movie doesn’t make the argument it thinks it is making.
One of the other oddball contradictions is that Katherine Newberry seems to be a big comedy snob. She thinks that jokes should rule the day. It’s a meritocracy where the best jokes rise to the top. Yet, she stacks her show with “comic” guests like senator Dianne Feinstein and author Doris Kearns Goodwin, forcing the plebeians in the audience that showed up for a laugh to eat their educational vegetables first. It is bizarre. Newberry’s general condescension for the current state of youtube comedy and the audience becomes a plot point that helps rectify this contradiction, but its still a shaky premise to get off the ground. Part of this movie rests in a “don’t meet your heroes” story with Thompson in the Devil Wears Prada/Meryl Streep role, the icon who torments her staff behind the scenes, but Ganatra blows past that to get to the next thing, then past that to yet another thing. There is a little bit of late night network drama in here too, like the Leno/Letterman late shift or the Conan/Leno push-out, but Late Night isn’t as interested in the mechanics of that. A version of this movie written by Aaron Sorkin that wasn’t afraid to get into the inside baseball of network comedy writing might be interesting. It would be a lot like The Newsroom but it would still be more interesting.
On a personal note, one of the big disappointments of the movie is actually Kaling’s take on comedy. If anything has killed late night and network TV comedy in the last decade is is the Daily Show-ification of all comedy. The shift from a political event giving rise to a joke to a political comment standing in for a joke. In the world of Late Night this more opinionated political stance that puts comedy in the backseat for opinion and social justice causes is what Mindy Kaling thinks is actually saving comedy. It’s fitting that Seth Myers is actually in this movie (ready to immediately hire Molly despite her still thin resume) since he is one of the accomplices that is contributing to the self-aggrandizing cannibalism of network comedy.
As previously said, while Newberry’s arc is quite effective – and at times touching with huge help from John Lithgow in a great little bit as Newberry’s ailing husband – Molly is given no arc. She doesn’t try and fail and finally succeed. Despite never saying anything funny, she tries and succeeds and it’s just up to everyone else to catch up to her comic genius. Harrowing, isn’t it.
Late Night is yet another movie that mangles it’s intentions, but this time it seems to at least know what it is mangling. The movie’s desire to deliver a message gets in front of it’s storytelling and contradicts it time and again, but inside that there are moments that work. Some good lines, some wry observations about network comedy and Thompson’s great performance. The film is edgeless, rounded off for mass appeal, so you’re better off with Network any day of the week, but it’s not a train wreck.