Late Night

***

Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

Late Night, starring Emma Thompson
"Ganatra’s film falls short in many ways despite having the best of intentions." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Written by and starring comedian Mindy Kaling (The Mindy Project TV show), co-starring Brit thesp Emma Thompson, and directed by Nisha Ganatra (who has directed features like 1999’s Chutney Popcorn and a lot of TV work, including directing episodes of Kaling’s show), Late Night is all about female empowerment behind and in front of the camera.

It certainly feels like a film for these times, and the potential of Kaling and Thompson as a comedic duo had me keen. But Ganatra’s film falls short in many ways despite having the best of intentions, as although it says all the right things and is undeniably charming, it can’t convincingly portray what its main character is supposed to be good at or the world she is operating in: comedy-heavy late night talk shows. To put it another way, the film isn’t really that funny, nor does it showcase many funny gags being written by the main characters, most of whom are supposed to be…great topical comedy writers.

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That being said, I am always interested in peeks behind the curtain of film and television productions, and Late Night’s plot offers plenty of that, whilt doing worthwhile service in addressing the long-festering issue of writers rooms being white male-dominated. There is something quite defiantly anachronistic about its setting, which is kind of the key angle to the story: how can one female host keep her seemingly unchanged-for-decades talk show format fresh when even she, not being one given to self-doubt, feels the gags are reheated and the political content cotton-wool thin? As veteran imported Brit host Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson), long running anchor of Katherine Newbury Tonight (a show sort of like Jay Leno, Letterman et al) Thompson chews on the scenery with gusto as an imperious, profane, intentionally out-of-touch demagogue. She rocks power pant suits and a shock of bleached hair, all jabbing fingers and glares.

Yet Katharine isn’t totally immune to ratings and backroom chatter. So when she’s accused of being a “woman who hates women”, due to her all-male and all-white writing team, who she feels quite credibly are too sedate and steering her show into a decline, she puts affirmative action on the to-do list, and in short order the klutzy but super-keen Molly (Kaling) is hired as the one woman in Katherine’s room.

Molly, young and of Indian descent, has grown up saturated in late-night TV comedy and has idolised Katharine as a comedic and political icon from afar for years, despite her writing skills being limited to crafting peppy gags for her chemical plant employer’s internal newsletters. Once hired and past the point where the boorish team of male writers think she is just an intern or there to deliver donuts, she sets about treading on everyone’s toes (and falling over her own) to help Katherine by revitalizing her show and career—and possibly effect even bigger change at the same time by waking up the male writers to their own lazy misogyny.

Its a role well-suited for Kaling, whose charm and sheer hard-to-knock earnestness helps counter the fact that the exact way she is hired isn’t remotely believable and her character does seem at times oddly bifurcated between being unrealistically kooky one minute and then suddenly super- confident about asserting her rights and skills when challenged. The character seems to exist right away at two ends of the poles as opposed to growing in one direction. It is an odd character choice. There are some inconsistencies in Katharine's character too, for that matter. She is apparently ignorant of even her writers' names (one of the long-running gags is she will only refer to them as numbers) and never deigns to visit their writing room, yet she is widely called a control freak. Would a control freak have let the criticisms of her show build up this far and have passed up the chance to grab her underlings by the proverbial ear?

But for all the fun of watching Thompson crush the fragile egos of her all-male writing team with epic rants, and Kaling goofing around while quietly succeeding in getting the showmakers to address their show’s flaws (its not topical enough in its politics or crazy enough in its comedy, seems to be her analysis), the film really doesn’t show Katharine’s programme becoming progressively funnier as Molly makes an impact, and this lessens the sense of her triumph. Her fixes seem kind of obvious, to the point where its hard to believe no one thought of them. Plus, the many the plot arcs feel paint-by-numbers; the good-looking hunk who turns out to be a prick, the harsh but ultimately won-over boss, a discovery by Katharine that that thing called ‘social media’ can turn it all around for her. In short, for all its immense likability and right-on messaging, a film about needing better writers…needed better writing.

Reviewed on: 02 Jun 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.

Read more Late Night reviews:

Jeremy Mathews ****

Festivals:

Sundance 2019

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