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Late Night Movie Review

Late Night (2019) movie poster Late Night

Theatrical Release: June 7, 2019 / Running Time: 102 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Nisha Ganatra / Writer: Mindy Kaling

Cast: Emma Thompson (Katherine Newbury), Mindy Kaling (Molly Patel), Max Casella (Burditt), Hugh Dancy (Charlie Fain), John Lithgow (Walter Lovell), Denis O'Hare (Brad), Reid Scott (Tom Campbell), Ike Barinholtz (Daniel Tennant), John Early (Reynolds), Paul Walter Hauser (Mancuso), Amy Ryan (Caroline), Seth Meyers (Himself)

 

Television veteran Mindy Kaling makes her screenwriting debut and also picks up her first leading film role on Late Night, an R-rated comedy set behind the scenes of a network television talk show.

Emma Thompson plays longtime host Katherine Newbury. Her hair style isn't far from Ellen DeGeneres' and her English accent can be likened to John Oliver and James Corden. But her career resembles that of a 2009 Jay Leno. Newbury has been on the air for twenty-eight seasons,
a remarkable run by any standard, made all the more remarkable by the fact that no one seems to like her show anymore. Newbury holds social media in contempt and bristles at the notion of doing anything viral or pandering. Her idea of solid guests are senator Dianne Feinstein and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.

While you might assume with guests like those that Newbury is a strong woman with great respect for other women, her writing staff doesn't reflect that at all. In fact, it is comprised entirely of white men. When one with a newborn child meets with her to ask for a raise, she fires him. Upon advice from her trusted producer (Denis O'Hare), Newbury decides that the opening should be filled with a woman. Enter Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling), a Pennsylvania chemical plant worker with no experience other than watching and enjoying Newbury's show since childhood.

Molly is a diversity hire and the boys' club that is the writers' room isn't particularly welcoming towards her. Newbury isn't either, even though she demanded a female hire. With news that the host is in danger of being replaced at the end of the season, Newbury crashes that writers' room for the first time in ages and demands brainstorming for ways her show can become relevant again.

Molly isn't shy about expressing the ways in which she thinks the show can improve. But her contributions are pretty modest, until she writes an edgy Planned Parenthood joke that Newbury decides not to perform in her monologue.

"Late Night" stars Emma Thompson as talk show host Katherine Newbury, who finds her job in jeopardy after twenty-eight seasons on the air.

Not one single aspect of Late Night rings true. Newbury seamlessly goes from having zero interaction with her writers -- whom she assigns numbers rather than learn their names -- to spending every waking moment of her life with them. The effort is less to improve the show than to save her job and in 2019, it's hard for us to share the movie's view of late night talk shows as a treasured institution.

As the rare woman of color who has succeeded in comedy (initially as an integral part of "The Office" and then as star, creator, and executive producer of "The Mindy Project"), Kaling should be as well-suited as anyone to taking us behind the scenes and opening our eyes to dubious contemporary showbiz practices. Think Tina Fey with "30 Rock" or, far less well-known, Jake Kasdan's gem The TV Set. Frustratingly, though, the lone writer serves up stale, unfunny material. She can't decide if she wants to make the easy, obvious point about the need for diverse voices in the business or if she just wants to tell the story of two women from different backgrounds at opposite ends of the power structure who clash but find some mutual respect. She doesn't have much success on either front, making it a chore to get through Late Night, which feels like much longer than 102 minutes with credits.

Molly gets fired repeatedly. She finds different dynamics with three of her male colleagues (Hugh Dancy and Reid Scott as potential love interests and Max Casella as office mate). Aside from one scene, a charity event that at which Newbury crashes, burns, and recovers, there's very little to establish either woman as witty or deserving of professional success. There's a belabored scandal involving one of the writers as a threat to Newbury's long marriage to a loving husband (John Lithgow) stricken with Parkinson's. There's also a Dane Cook-type stand-up (Ike Barinholtz) who is being groomed as a brash potential replacement host.

Mindy Kaling didn't just write and produce "Late Night." She also stars as chemist turned comedy show diversity hire Molly Patel.

Did Kaling write this script back in the late '00s when Cook was relevant and late night television was more interesting for its messy host successions? It kind of feels like that and one could easily imagine the actress getting turned down repeatedly while her Fox series failed to crack the 100 top-rated shows by Nielsen ratings.
Kaling had sizable roles in the underwhelming A Wrinkle in Time and Ocean's Eight last year, but her star has hardly risen and the creative and foreseeable commercial disappointments of this project probably will offset any boost that writing and starring in a wide release film should bring.

Late Night has been compared to 2017's The Big Sick on account of premiering at Sundance, being acquired by Amazon Studios for a substantial 8-figure sum, and getting scheduled for a strategic June rollout. But Kaling's film is in an entirely different league from Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon's autobiographical romantic comedy that ended up with an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. We can all agree that actors and writers of all colors should have opportunities to tell stories on film. What's disappointing is that this film, one rare such opportunity for an Indian-American writer/leading lady and director Nisha Ganatra, a TV-seasoned Canadian woman of Indian descent, proves so futile and flat in just about every way. Hopefully, its anticipated commercial disappointment is used not to discourage new, diverse, and female voices.

Related Reviews:
Now in Theaters: Booksmart Ma The Secret Life of Pets 2 Dark Phoenix Rocketman Photograph Aladdin The Sun Is Also a Star
Funny People The Big Sick
Mindy Kaling: Inside Out A Wrinkle in Time Ocean's Eight | Emma Thompson: Saving Mr. Banks An Education

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Reviewed May 23, 2019.



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