“Late Night” is a predictable melodrama. Presented as a comedy, it’s not funny enough. One would expect a room full of comedy writers to produce enough good jokes to keep us laughing, but the plot consigns them to the role of underachieving, worn-out sad sacks, a status not likely to yield hilarity. And yet, the film is saved by an outstanding performance by Emma Thompson as Katherine Newbury, the imperious, isolated, over-bearing first woman late night talk show host.
Newbury is over-the-hill and can’t admit it. To reverse a decade of declining ratings, she needs to shed her armor and reveal her inner self. Only a young upstart—a wise but inexperienced woman in the man’s world of comedy writing—can get through to this stubborn, set-in-her-ways boss. Except that won’t work in real life. Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, Joey Bishop and Phyllis Diller (RIP) couldn’t reinvent themselves to appeal to a younger demographic and a new era. And yet, “Late Night” would have us believe it’s doable if Newbury taps into the opinionated, socially conscious, caring side of her being. The screenplay labors to prove she has one.
The script by veteran TV comedy writer and actress Mindy Kaling, who also plays the truth-teller Molly Patel, is patterned and obvious in a Hollywood way. And yet, Kaling’s willingness to take pot-shots at both the white frat-boy writers and the PC culture feels right. Kaling attempts to throw herself in with the #MeToo movement by having Newbury emerge as a philanderer, having had an affair with a staffer. And yet, Kaling doesn’t go all-in even here. She lets Newbury off much easier than, say, Al Franken. Those looking for a #MeToo moment won’t find anything satisfying here, nor will those irritated by a culture of political correctness. Kaling wants it both ways, which means every position is compromised. An over-the-end-credits tracking shot shows an office full of new PC hires--multiple skin colors, genders, and ethnic groups. That seems cloying and, given the film we just saw, unlikely. In one scene, Newbury tells Patel she can’t tolerate her over-earnestness. The same could be said of the film.
The characters in this typical plot of passé-persona-confronted-with-youthful-challenger could be male or female. And yet, there seems to be a run on aging women. Think Olivier Assayas’s “Personal Shopper” (2016) and “Clouds of Sils Maria” (2014) (both with Kristen Stewart).
The male actors in “Late Night” are secondary to the point of being forgettable, and that includes John Lithgow, playing Newbury’s long-suffering, classical pianist husband with Parkinson’s. This is a two-woman show.
Directed by another female TV veteran, Nisha Ginatra, “Late Night” clings too tightly to its hackneyed plot and offers a less-than-credible resolution. And yet, Thompson is charismatic and convincing as Newbury, and the melodrama—including a penultimate scene, steeped in social class, in which Newbury tracks Edward Lewis’s (Richard Gere) ascent of the fire escape in “Pretty Woman” (1990) —is sufficient to make one believe, if only momentarily, in Newbury’s transformation, and to feel good in the end.
No breakthrough; decent Hollywood.
Director: Nisha Ginatra
Starring: Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, John Lithgow, Hugh Dancy, Reid Scott
Runtime: 102 minutes