LATE NIGHT. Country: USA. Director: Nisha Ganatra. Cast: Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, Reid Scott, Amy Ryan, John Lithgow. Screenwriter: Mindy Kaling. Language: English. Runtime 103 minutes. US Release date: June 7, 2019. Venue: Angelika Film Center, NYC, NY. Rating B.
If taken at face value, the premise of Late Night has been done many times in both film and TV: an idealistic outsider of a highly competitive company gets hired with next to no knowledge of how the agency works. The head of the agency is a terrible human being who has lost the plot on reality and may be on the verge of a replacement with someone younger and more hip. Even so, through grit and determination, the outsider slowly charms his or herself into the horrible boss’ life and career, shows him or her a valuable lesson, and either leaves for bigger and better things or continues on because now he or she has learned the ropes of how things work. Often, there will be some reluctant rapport between the newcomer and the crusty old boss, which will end in an awkward good bye or continue into something bigger and better. And that, in a nutshell, is what Late Night is. By the way I’m painting it, you would think I hate it already, even before the opening credits have rolled.
However, it’s far from the contrary. Late Night might be outrageously predictable but it has a message to convey and an entertaining story to tell, and it’s all due to the presence of Mindy Kaling doing double duty a screenwriter and an underling you want to see succeed because she’s so openly earnest and relatable. Well versed in comedy herself, Kaling’s writing develops harp characters for herself and co-star Emma Thompson who stars as Katherine Newbury. Also, alongside her writing, what seems to be making Late Night such a monster hit is its resemblance to 2006’s The Devil Wears Prada, a theme whose essence it closely follows without incurring in theft or being a shameless remake.
The story goes as this: Katherine Newbury is the acidic and abrasive talk show host of “Late Night with Katherine Newbury”, a show that due to failing ratings is set to be axed by the network. Having been accused of sexism within her employ (she does not hire female writers), she impulsively hires a woman — Mindy Kaling’s Molly Patel, a woman who’s never worked comedy writing before but does admire her. She informs her writers that they need to come up with funnier jokes and make her relevant again because she’s not about to retire so soon and leave a life’s work behind. Molly initially fumbles while trying to be of use and her colleagues make it next to impossible for her to have any credibility. You can see where the story is headed, but again, the writing, the story itself, brings so much to the table that you can’t not sit there and watch as if you’d never seen this type of movie before. A crisis of faith and commitment will transpire, and somehow, Katherine and Molly will find common ground, this time in the world of stand-up, a place where Katherine herself had her big break ages ago.
So far, good for the story as it heads towards re-building the brand of Katherine’s humor the way it should be, a plot that practically ensures her stay at the top and as the queen of late night. Now, here is where I’m going to start to throw in some questions. While the entire story hinges around Katherine, what about everyone else? Molly’s personal life seems to revolve only on succeeding as a writer and while I can understand that, a more realistic approach would also bring her own personal interests into play. A tentative romance between Molly and ambitious co-writer Tom Campbell (Reid Scott) doesn’t quite develop in a convincing manner. Half the time he’s putting her down to begin with, and while it is inferred that this may be a form of self-preservation, it just comes across as thinly misguided misogyny.
But perhaps I am asking a bit much of what is basically a well-timed comedy that is exploding into wide release all over the nation and has already recouped its budget of four million. While Late Night is nowhere near grounded in reality, we can see it as Kaling affirming herself as a comedic writer and actress, which she has proven capable enough to be, It has given Emma Thompson a hit picture. Considering how her previous films (where she was the lead) have failed — The Children’s Act barely got a release and went straight to VOD, as did Alone in Berlin. Effie Gray was a total flop. You’d have to go back to 2013 to Saving Mr. Banks to find a movie of Thompson as lead that made money. [Okay, she has been in some hits, but as a minor or supporting character.] Clever of her to approach her role under a Miranda Priestly look, to assure audience identification even when her persona itself would be pretty insufferable. After all, who wouldn’t want to see an ice queen go through the humiliation process only to re-emerge bigger and better than ever? I thought so.