Featured for Late Night

There must be a certain dark irony to LATE NIGHT coming out a mere couple of weeks after Busy Phillips’ late-night show shuttering after being on the air less than a year. Late-night television in the real world has long been seen as freezing out women, either through a lack of thought or outright hostility. In our world, the closest we have to woman late-night host is Samantha Bee and she airs once a week at the tale end of prime time. So LATE NIGHT depicting a world where not only does a woman hold sway over a network late-night show, but she has done so for multiple decades, could be a story enough on its own.

LATE NIGHT, though, is not interested in doing the bare minimum. It has higher ambitions than presenting us with that slightly alternate world. Does LATE NIGHT deserve your dollars with the more it aims for?

Late Night: katherine newbury and molly patel
Mindy Kaling and Emma Thompson face the press in LATE NIGHT. (Courtesy of Amazon Studios)

The Idea Behind LATE NIGHT

While refusing a writer’s request for a raise and lecturing him about the sexism implicit in feeling he is owed one, long-time late-night host Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) finds herself taken off guard by his reply. More or less calling her the real sexist, the writer points out she has no women writers in her room and has not had one for some time. Rather than consider that she had done that and not even know noticed, she orders the show’s producer Brad (Denis O’Hare) to find her a woman writer immediately.

In walks Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling), a woman with no formal TV show experience who won an essay contest at the chemical plant she works at and somehow parlayed that into a meeting with Brad. Despite her lack of experience, Brad hires on the spot for a 13-week contract. Unfortunately for Molly, her dream job is about to prove anything but. Her idol, Newbury, begins to experience an existential crisis of sorts between the lack of women writers revelation, the network’s new president alerting her that she’ll soon lose her late-night show, her husband Walter’s (John Lithgow) deteriorating health, and, eventually the reveal of a poor decision years earlier. And if that was not enough, her co-workers openly consider her a “diversity hire” and repeatedly, through word and deed, let her know how little they think of her.

Can the show be saved from the network? Can Newbury be saved from herself?

Late Night: Katherine on the streets
Emma Thompson has bars in a scene from LATE NIGHT. (Courtesy of Amazon Studios)

Writing LATE NIGHT

No stranger to a writer’s room herself, writer Mindy Kaling knows how to capture the feel of them. The mix of panic, complacency, intense moments of activity, and hours of frivolous emptiness. And, sadly, it also appears she is no stranger to being an outcast in the room, rendered suspect by limited experience, race, or gender and unable to truly know which.

LATE NIGHT, interestingly, is not really about Kaling’s newbie Molly. Instead, her main concern as the film’s writer is Newbury. As a result, LATE NIGHT pulls a kind of bait-and-switch. Molly is sort of our POV character. Newbury, however, gets the deeper part. Her life — professional and personal — gets a larger piece of the script. Moreover, her sections pop with emotions more complex and more rewarding than those in Molly’s parts.

The screenplay, essentially, invites us to ride Molly’s coattails until we can get to the true lead, Katherine.

Late Night: Tom and Molly
Reid Scott and Mindy Kaling watch the show within the movie in LATE NIGHT. (Courtesy of Amazon Studios)

Casting the Leads of LATE NIGHT

Even if the script did not favor her, it would be difficult not to fall under Emma Thompson’s sway here. She admirably never takes the easy way out with Katherine. She could minimize Newbury’s abrasiveness, arrogance, and fragility but instead affirms them. In playing the script straight, she finds and highlights the prickly character’s humanity rather than soft sell it and end up with a perhaps easier to love but also less interesting character.

Kaling is no slouch, though. Her Patel is simpler by design, but she is not without her edges either. Moreover, Kaling puts in another performance that does not feel derivative of her other efforts. Molly is distinct from her OFFICE character who is distinct from her MINDY PROJECT character who is distinct from her OCEAN’S 8 character. Life circumstances do not provide the only differential either. Each one carries themselves differently, has a different collection of reactions, and a different way of being in the world. I am not declaring her an Oscar candidate here or anything, but it is worth noting that she has quietly created a range of different personas.

The writers
Paul Walter Hauser shows off his internet research as Reid Scott looks on in a scene from LATE NIGHT. (Courtesy of Amazon Studios)

Casting the Rest of the Callsheet

Remember how good Amy Ryan can be? LATE NIGHT sure as hell does, casting her in the small but pivotal role of the new network president Caroline Morton. She goes toe to toe with Thompson a few times and they are among the movie’s best moments.

John Lithgow, who can be wonderfully hammy, lowers his register and finds the quiet heartbreak of Walter. His speech to Katherine after the two have not seen each other for several days is beautifully and brutally earnest. A strong, emotionally naked bit of acting.

The rest of the supporting cast is similarly strong. LATE NIGHT has a deep bench.

Hugh Dancy and Mindy Kaling get shocked in LATE NIGHT. (Courtesy of Amazon Studios)

Directing LATE NIGHT

Nisha Ganatra does good work here in her feature directorial debut. She does not deliver stunning visuals, but she fills the frame nicely. It never feels like a television show but at a larger size.

She is especially good at negotiating the small spaces of production offices. You can feel how tightly packed the writers work — and thus how at a remove Katherine is. LATE NIGHT likes to play on the discomfort and “mistakes” being in close proximity brings about and Ganatra makes us feel that reality, too.

Where the director really excels, though, is in her work with the actors. She gets nearly universally strong performances, top to bottom, from everyone. Moreover, no one seems to just be playing their “every movie” character.

Mindy Kaling walks to her first day as a late-night TV writer in a scene from LATE NIGHT. (Courtesy of Amazon Studios)

That’s a Wrap

LATE NIGHT does suffer from being more oriented around the less interesting of the two leads. Molly is not a bad point-of-view character but she never really gets more depth than being that point of view. Some of the solutions feel facile. The ending, especially, turns into a real “someone makes a speech, everyone claps, order has been instantly restored” moment. Neither the actors nor the script can dodge it. A plotline involving Molly and Charlie Fain (Hugh Dancy, surprisingly great as an American standup comic and f***boi) goes exactly where you think it will and does so in the least interesting and impactful way possible. And so on.

However, LATE NIGHT still draws in the viewer. It is smart, it feels honest, and the actors’ interactions are too good to miss.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *