Late Night reminds me of the Parks and Recreation joke where someone criticizes Leslie Knope for “being too short. Aggressively short, like she’s rubbing it in my face.” That’s how I feel Late Night carries its mediocrity. It’s an OK time at the movies, but it won’t wow you in any way. The humor never rises above a polite chuckle, its insights are surface level, and it never gives the audience a reason to care about its story. Late Night is fine, aggressively fine, and that’s why it’s so disappointing. After its premiere at Sundance, Late Night rode its warm reception to a record $13-million sale to Amazon. Now it arrives in theaters for everyone to see what all the fuss is about—not much, as it turns out.
RELEASE DATE: 6/14/2019
DIRECTOR: Nisha Ganatra
Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling) lands her dream job on a late-night talk show right as host Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) is about to be replaced by a younger, hipper man.
The biggest problem is that Late Night tries to be a few different movies, and the result is a diluted product. The plot revolves around Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson), host of a fledgling late-night talk show. Her once vital presence on the late-night scene has long since gone stale. With her ratings in the toilet, Katherine is on the cusp of losing her show to a cooler, more pop-culturally relevant comedian. You won’t need more than one guess to figure out that Katherine’s would-be replacement is a white guy (Ike Barinholtz). As a pioneer for women in the late-night field, this serves as a wake-up call to Katherine. With renewed vigor, Katherine sets her mind to reminding everyone why they loved her in the first place.
But Katherine’s complacency has turned her into part of the problem. Her writing staff is all white and male (same goes for much of the other employees we see). Enter Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling, who also wrote the script and serves as a producer), a woman of color with almost no comedy experience. Despite her lack of qualifications, she gets the job as Katherine demands a woman be added to the writers’ room. At its heart, Late Night is a story about someone who is as set in her ways as the societal norms she claims to stand against. But Katherine’s been on her throne for so long that she’s woefully out of touch with everything. Together Molly and Katherine have a chance to shake things up.
Thompson delivers a fun performance as Katherine, playing a cantankerous boss that everyone is afraid to cross. Thompson deploys a withering stare that can freeze you through the screen and delivers pithy insults. Her performance is the highlight of Late Night. The problem is that the movie wants to be an antidote to stories about Mediocre White Males, but has little to offer outside of easy insults. In one scene, Katherine tells Molly, “That’s how things work.” Molly replies with, “Fuck how things work.” It should be an emboldening moment, but it’s just frustrating. Late Night is a conventional movie about breaking down conventions. As a fish out of water story for Molly, it’s predictable and generic. As a story about someone trying to recapture their fervor, it’s dull and unimaginative. Overall, Late Night plays things safe.
The script never gives us a reason to care if Katherine saves her show or not. Katherine’s place in history is cemented. It’s not like she’s after a second act or anything. If she loses her show, it’ll be a blow to her ego, but so what? We never get the feeling that she will be anything other than fine. For Molly, the stakes are better defined. This writing opportunity is a dream job for her and the prospect of losing it before she really has a chance to succeed is real. Kaling’s performance is strongest in the moments when Molly is vulnerable.
The most disappointing aspect of Late Night is Kaling’s script. We all know she is a witty and insightful writer, but Late Night lacks a strong perspective. The male-dominated world of talk shows is fertile territory for comedy, satire, and social commentary. But so much of the humor here is toothless and benign. With material this dry, the onus is on the actors to elevate it, which they mostly do. Thompson is reliably strong and Kaling also does good work. Among the supporting players, John Lithgow fares the best as Katherine’s husband Walter.
There is an early scene where Molly gets a politically tinged abortion joke into Katherine’s monologue, but when the cue card comes up Katherine freezes and shakes it off like an indecisive pitcher on the mound. Instead, she tells some bland joke that gets a few meager laughs. That’s Late Night in a nutshell, balking at taking a strong stand in favor of the same old, same old.