[Screen It]

"LATE NIGHT"
(2019) (Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Dramedy: A young woman is a "diversity hire" on a late-night talk show, writing monologue jokes for a female host she's long admired who turns out to be a disappointment.
PLOT:
Katherine Newbury (EMMA THOMPSON) is a living TV legend, having launched a late-night talk show in 1991, won multiple Emmys, and outlasted many of her male rivals. But the show has gone stale among Millennials and Generation Z. There is no edge to her opening monologues, and her guests have been second- and third-tier for a while much to her producer Brad (DENIS O'HARE) and husband Walter's (JOHN LITHGOW) chagrin.

When Katherine gets called out for having an all-white-male writing staff, she commands Brad to hire a woman, a minority, or preferably a minority woman. Into their lives comes Molly Patel (MINDY KALING), a female, Indiana-American novice writer who has been obsessed with the show for years. She is hired on the spot, but quickly comes into conflict with the boys' club that is the show's staffers lead by head writer Tom (REID SCOTT); promiscuous funnyman Charlie (HUGH DANCY); and the old boys' club of Reynolds (JOHN EARLY), Mancuso (PAUL WALTER HAUSER), and Burditt (MAX CASELLA).

Molly is hired at a time when new network head, Constance Morton (AMY RYAN) is threatening to fire Katherine and replace her with up-and-coming comedian Daniel Tennant (IKE BARINHOLTZ). At the same time, Katherine quarrels with Molly who wants her idol to be more of a role model for women and take on more topical humor. The wheels come off when it's revealed that Katherine once had an affair with Charlie soon after Walter was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.

OUR TAKE: 4.5 out of 10
I wish "Late Night," the new dramedy starring and written by the delightful Mindy Kaling, was as good as the movie-going public is being told it is. I was all pumped for a smart, funny, "woke" film about a young Indian-American woman named Molly (Kaling), trying to make it in the male-dominated world of late-night, talk-show comedy writing. Maybe I was expecting greatness considering the buzz "Late Night" got coming out of Sundance. But I think this is a case of the people who fervently support women behind the camera and in front of it -- of which I am one -- trying just a bit too hard to tell you something is great when it's merely just ... eh ... OK.

One problem the film has is it doesn't know whether to make the story about Molly or her demanding, near-tyrannical boss, the legendary late-night talk show host Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson). Molly's "diversity hire" in which she shakes up Katherine's all-white-male writing staff, sets the stage for a promising, unlikely, and potentially quite winning underdog story. But Kaling never really commits to telling Molly's full story. In her script and performance, she ends up being more of Katherine's conscience, a needling voice urging her idol to finally use her show to deliver more topical humor and cutting-edge commentary.

The problem is, Katherine just isn't the hero she is looking for. She's a pretty awful person. Sure, on this alternate Earth, she got her American network show in 1991, presumably in the waning days of Johnny Carson, and was able to best (or, at least, outlast) Jay Leno, David Letterman, and Conan O'Brien. But she's all about herself in 2019, insulated and rather bored with her own success. She doesn't even know the names of her writers, who have been penning jokes and bits for her for years. She actually gives them numbers and refers to them as such. At one point, she is able to recall one writer's name, asks why isn't he at the staff meeting, to which one of the writers replies, "Uh, he died in 2012."

This would be all good if the film were going more for a comedy vibe a la "The Devil Wears Prada." In that film, the storyline stayed squarely on the Anne Hathaway character and there was humor both broad and biting as she dealt with her larger-than-life female boss in the magazine publishing world. "Late Night" loses steam when it eventually tries to soften the Katherine character, giving her clinical depression, a husband (John Lithgow) with Parkinson's disease, and a secret affair from a few years earlier that threatens to undermine the newfound success her show is having with Molly on the team.

It's not an overly bad flick. Kaling is too talented a writer to probably ever turn in a script that didn't have at least a half-dozen keeper one-liners and some very funny asides. I liked that she made Molly not some magic cure-all for Katherine and the show. Molly is called out often for her quick willingness to blame "white male privilege" and other societal woes for her own failings. And I also liked that although she had basically been a fangirl of late-night TV for years, she still had on-the-job learning to do. Eventually, Molly starts to develop a rapport with some of the other writers, leading to some solid on-air gags like a recurring "On the Street" bit in which Katherine plays White Savior to minorities unable to hail a cab or apply for a bank loan.

Unfortunately, "Late Night" is one of those movies that too often tries to goose its audience into laughing and responding to its own script. Studio audiences guffaw at jokes that are mildly witty at best. Characters often don't talk to each other, they speechify and constantly try and impart sound-byte wisdom. Of course, the accomplishment here is the film itself. A 2019 comedy starring two talented women, written by an Indian-American woman, and directed by a Canadian woman (Nisha Ganatra). Bravo, ladies! I can't wait to see if your next movies are better. I give "Late Night" a 4.5 out of 10. (T. Durgin)




Reviewed June 6, 2019 / Posted June 14, 2019


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