Though Layered And Ambitious, 'Late Night' Doesn't Always Stick The Landing

Jun 7, 2019
Originally published on June 10, 2019 8:06 am
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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Actress and comedian Mindy Kaling has said in interviews that she started her entertainment career as a diversity hire, writing for the NBC series "The Office." She's parlayed some of that experience into her script for "Late Night," a new movie set in the world of network television. She co-stars along with Emma Thompson, who plays the longtime host of a late-night talk show. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: The Hollywood we see in the crowd-pleasing showbiz satire "Late Night" is more progressive than the real thing in at least one respect. This one has a late-night talk show hosted by a woman. That host is a British-born New Yorker named Katherine Newbury, and she's played by Emma Thompson, giving one of her signature, superb performances as a woman who's incapable of suffering fools gladly.

Katherine is brilliant, acerbic and proudly elitist. She has few friends or family, except her loving, ailing husband, beautifully played by John Lithgow. She's built her reputation on excellence and has a shelf full of Emmys to prove it, though her 28-year-old show has seen better days. Viewership has been slipping for a decade, probably because Katherine prefers to interview writers and intellectuals rather than movie stars and YouTube celebrities.

Around the time she learns that her days on the show are numbered, Katherine decides it's time she diversified her staff. Her writing team consists entirely of white men, fueling rumors that she's one of those successful women who can't abide other successful women. And so she ends up hiring Molly Patel, played by Mindy Kaling, who also wrote and produced the movie.

Molly is a former efficiency expert at a Pennsylvania chemical plant with a passion for comedy but no TV writing experience. Her irrepressible eager-to-please spirit almost immediately rubs Katherine and her other co-workers the wrong way. In an early writer's room meeting, Molly gives a detailed report, laying out three areas where she thinks the show could improve.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LATE NIGHT")

MINDY KALING: (As Molly) The first is your overall unwillingness to do high-concept recurring bits - you know, where you have to physically leave the studio. Those are the ones that can go viral if executed well. The second is your total lack of presence on social media. You seem to have contempt for it, which feels ill-advised because most of your audience is watching on their phones. The third - I think people get very excited when you share your beliefs. So what you just said about the Miss America Pageant, that was awesome. When you reveal those kind of strong opinions, it's when you really come alive as a performer.

CHANG: But Molly's well-intentioned advice gets a frosty reception from Katherine.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LATE NIGHT")

EMMA THOMPSON: (As Katherine) So what's the solution?

KALING: (As Molly) Oh, I don't have one.

THOMPSON: (As Katherine) Just to be clear, you don't have any new ideas or jokes.

KALING: (As Molly) No.

THOMPSON: (As Katherine) OK. I've been doing this job for nearly 30 years, and I know what works. And I'll tell you what doesn't work - an absurdly confident newcomer coming in, criticizing my show and giving me her assessment of my comic persona without doing the hard work of presenting me with solutions. This room is a ship. I am the captain. And you were barely in the right to be in awe.

CHANG: I don't know how faithfully "Late Night" reproduces the behind-the-scenes goings-on at a late-night talk show, but it's probably about as accurate as "The Devil Wears Prada" was about life at a glossy fashion magazine, which is to say, accurate enough.

Despite some quick cameos by Seth Meyers and Bill Maher and a few references to past late-night ratings wars and host succession scandals, the movie is never as rich or penetrating a sendup as, say, "The Larry Sanders Show." But as with most office comedies, logistics matter less than the quality of the banter and the character interplay. And the director, Nisha Ganatra, pulls off that juggling act smoothly enough.

The movie could stand to be more judicious where its huge supporting cast is concerned. I was grateful for every minute of Amy Ryan as a tough-as-nails network boss and Denis O'Hare as Katherine's unfailingly loyal executive producer. But some of Molly's fellow writers, especially Hugh Dancy as the office Lothario, overstay their welcome.

You always want more scenes between Molly and Katherine, two mismatched individuals who come to realize how much they need each other. Kaling wrote the script with Emma Thompson in mind, and it's a dream pairing of role and star. Few actors can be as hilariously withering as Thompson and show you the human longing and frustration beneath the surface.

"Late Night" is a Cinderella fantasy of sorts, with happy endings all but assured. Katherine will get just enough of a comeuppance to become a nicer person and better comedian. And Molly, after a few false starts, will excel at the job of her dreams.

But while there's more than a little wish fulfillment going on here, the movie is also boldly confrontational about topics like casual workplace sexism and the push for inclusiveness in the entertainment industry. The other writers initially treat Molly with sniggering contempt, even as they drown in their own self-pity. It's just so hard being a white man these days, they say. But while Molly may be the show's token woman of color, she's also hardworking and perceptive, and her fresh outsider's perspective turns out to be pretty spot on.

"Late Night" is so smart about nearly every subject it tackles that I wish it were even smarter, that it did a better job of reconciling its caustic industry satire with its more sentimental lump-in-the-throat moments. Beyond stage comedy, bits actually fall pretty flat. Even allowing for a charitable audience, the jokes in Katherine's nightly monologue and the occasional stand-up routines just aren't funny enough to get such exaggerated audience reaction shots.

"Late Night" is an uncommonly layered and ambitious mainstream entertainment, but it doesn't always stick the landing. Comedy may be hard, but comedy within a comedy is even harder.

DAVIES: Justin Chang is a film critic for The Los Angeles Times.

On Monday's show, a conversation with British actor Damian Lewis, who plays a ruthless hedge fund owner on Showtime's "Billions." He also played a Marine sergeant in the series "Homeland," King Henry VIII in "Wolf Hall" and first became known for his role as Army Major Richard Winters in the HBO series "Band Of Brothers." Hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IKO IKO")

CHANG: (Singing) Iko, Iko. Iko, Iko, un day. Jockomo (ph) feeno (ph) ah na nay, jockomo feena (ph) nay. My spy boy and your spy boy were sitting on the bayou. My spy boy told your spy boy, I'm going to set your tail on fire. Talking about hey, now. Hey, now. Iko, Iko, un day. Jockomo feeno ah na nay, jockomo feena nay. My marrain (ph) and your marrain, sitting on the bayou. My marrain told your marrain... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.