Late Night

****

Reviewed by: Jeremy Mathews

Late Night, starring Emma Thompson
"Memo to filmmakers: If you’re looking for a failsafe plan to make a delightful film, try showcasing the breadth of Emma Thompson’s talents." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Memo to filmmakers: If you’re looking for a failsafe plan to make a delightful film, try showcasing the breadth of Emma Thompson’s talents. Over the course of Late Night, she demonstrates brilliant comic timing, brutal dry wit and poignant emotional depth. It’s simply a pleasure to watch her work.

She stars as Katherine Newbury, a storied late-night talk show host — think the first female Johnny Carson or David Letterman. But as the film begins, she’s lost touch with modern audiences and faces cancellation after 28 years on the air. She runs her show on autopilot, and hasn’t even met several of her writers. And all of those writers are white men — that is, until Molly comes in.

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Played by screenwriter Mindy Kaling, Molly enters the staff through a mix of cleverness and luck. The cleverness: She managed to turn a performance reward from her job at a chemical plant into an interview for her dream job. The luck: Katherine, just called out for not liking women, has put pressure on her producer to hire a woman.

Kaling, who was the only woman on the writing staff of The Office: An American Workplace, had plenty of real-life experience to draw from to deliver this mix of workplace satire and backstage drama. Molly soon learns that getting through the door was the easy part. Her colleagues don’t want to consider that she might have some good ideas. They use the always-empty women’s room as a place to stink up, and don’t take the hint that they shouldn’t do so when she’s in there. And her boss doesn’t exactly stick up for her. Director Nisha Ganatra reaches a nice balance of comedy and workplace anxiety, such as in a scene in which Molly is commanded to six but doesn’t have a chair.

Thompson is able to breeze through her character’s jokes, but this is also the story of someone who carries a lot of baggage. On the TV screen, she’s lovable and charming. Off screen, she’s cantankerous and cruel — except when she’s with her husband (John Lithgow), the only person she trusts. Even when Molly is completely right about things, Katherine has a hard time offering encouragement or rewards.

Not everything in the film works. Details like Katherine’s insistence on booking intellectual, unpopular guests don’t really jive with the idea that she’s detached from the show’s day-to-day operations, and other behind-the-scenes details come off as easy rather than authentic. As the conclusion nears, some plot mechanics feel forced.

But thanks to Kaling’s characters and Thompson’s delivery, Late Night never loses its sense of purpose. It follows in the tradition of workplace dramas, but also has enough comedy bits to populate a real late night program. It’s a testament to the power of letting your own voice shine through.

Reviewed on: 31 Jan 2019
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A late-night talk show host’s world is turned upside down when she hires her only female staff writer. Originally intended to smooth over diversity concerns, her decision has unexpectedly hilarious consequences as the two women separated by culture and generation are united by their love of a biting punchline.
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