FILM REVIEW – LATE NIGHT. With Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, John Lithgow, Hugh Dancy, Reid Scott. Written by Mindy Kaling. Directed by Nisha Ganatra. R for language throughout and some sexual references. 102 minutes.
In a season of sequels, reboots, and superheroes – which is to say, the summer movie season – someone in Hollywood usually figures out that a bit of counterprogramming will find a grateful audience. LATE NIGHT is just such a film, a finely tuned comedy/drama that tackles such issues as sexism and ageism while not forgetting to tell an entertaining story.
Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson), has carved out a niche for herself as the only female late night talk show host in otherwise all-male world. Once a ratings winner, the 50-something Newbury seems to have lost her connection with viewers and sees the network grooming a younger – and male – comedian to take her place. To kickstart her show, she hires Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling) to be the only woman writer on her staff.
The two characters have parallel arcs. Newbury has to prove that she’s not past her shelf life and can adapt and remain relevant. Patel has to prove not only that she can write funny but can hold her own in the competitive atmosphere in the writer’s room. The two come to see that by helping each other, they are helping themselves.
The Cambridge, Massachusetts native Kaling also wrote the script, and undoubtedly drew on her memories as the only woman writer on the TV show “The Office.” In giving herself a plum role as Patel, she has also created a compelling character in Newbury, who has to justify herself to her boss at the network – ironically, another woman – as well as to younger viewers who might not be looking for laughs from someone they see as their mothers’ age.
While it might seem formulaic to some extent, the film works because the characters are complex and sharply defined. Thompson conveys Newbury’s caustic wit, which may work on stage but makes it difficult for her to get close to people, or people to get close to her. Patel’s optimism and earnest desire to succeed would seem to be the antithesis of this, but it’s just what Newbury needs. Likewise, Patel needs to stand up for herself and push back rather than allow herself to be shoved aside.
Director Nisha Ganatra, who has worked primarily in TV, keeps things moving – there are quiet moments but no dead spaces – successfully taking us behind the scenes into the world of a television talk show. Fans of the late-night comedians will get a sense of just how much effort goes into making it look easy in front of the camera.
“Late Night” may not make any end of the year ten best lists, but for those seeking something original and pitched to adults at the movies in this summer movie season will find it a welcome relief.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.