LATE NIGHT TELLS the story of Katherine Newbury, an English female late night TV host (Emma Thompson) whose ten year slide in ratings threaten her show, her job, and for that matter, her (haughty, self-obsessed) sense of self. The Katherine Newbury show is accused of hosting boring guests, with a dull lead-in joke routine and, worse, she’s accused of hating women. The heart of the problem is that Katherine and her program have lost touch with its audience. She has simply not moved with her audience’s times.
High drama for an often sharp comedy!
And because it’s a comedy (written by the increasingly popular Mindy Kaling), it’s allowed the plot device of introducing Molly Patel (Kaling) into the all-male, generally misogynistic, sycophantic writers bull-pen.
The introduction of a woman of colour (and an inexperienced one at that) into an all white, male writer’s team, is almost as fanciful as the idea of a female late night host on American TV. No matter, it allows the writer a wonderful opportunity to skewer the status quo (that’s killing the show): that of the entitled White male, their casual racism and their outright hostility toward any woman taking a ‘man’s job’… led by a management style (Katherine’s) based on insult and intimidation (see The Devil Wears Prada for a primer)
These are the attitudes that feed and form the show’s (or for that, read, ‘any company that resembles this profile’) increasing irrelevance.
Nothing a little “diversity” can’t solve. Apart from a healthy dollop of naïveté and chutzpah, it’s Molly’s common touch that helps re-acquaint Katherine and the writers with the daring and the authenticity that once honed their relevance and wooed their audience.
Emma Thompson is, as usual, superb. With minimum words and with the barest of expressions, she allows us in to her character’s vulnerability despite the hard protective shell of her cold-hearted bitchiness. John Lithgow is compelling as her quiet, ailing husband. He’s the solid anchor, the forgiving counterpoint to help steady his younger wife’s hard edges and career implosion.
It’s often a well-written, enjoyable movie; often funny; often sharply insightful and snappily directed by TV director Nisha Ganatra (Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Dear White People).
But about half-way through, in a need to tie things up neatly, the movie looses its self confidence. The writer shies away from the truth of her, cynical, insights, to force a Hollywood gloss on things. The introductory scenes of hard-edged satire veers into emotional mawkishness. There’s a treacly rom-com-esque silliness that suggests a writer as desperate as her lead character to do anything for the approbation of her audience.
And that’s a pity. Mindy Kaling (writer: The Office; actor: Oceans Eight) is a fine up-and-coming talent. She needs a few more lessons from the likes of Armando Iannucci or even Neil Simon to add a little spicy pepper to neutralize the cloying sweetness.
LATE NIGHT. Dir: Nisha Ganatra. Written by: Mindy Kaling. With: Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, John Lithgoe, Reid Scott (Veep), Dennis O’Hare (The Good Fight). Cinematographer: Matthew Clark