Late Night | Nisha Ganatra | June 7, 2019 (limited); June 14, 2019 (wide)
In the fictionalized but realistic world of Nisha Ganatra’s Late Night (which premiered at this year’s Montclair Film Festival as the Centerpiece following Sundance in January), Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) outlasted the likes of Letterman and Leno and is battling the new age era of hosts like Stephen Colbert and Seth Myers (who even has a brief cameo). Newbury was revered for her witty comedy, as well as her classy approach and worldview. She was seen as a trailblazer for being the only woman to stay competitive in a field utterly dominated by white men.
Only her winning streak is coming to an end as her ratings have been plummeting and it has forced network head Caroline Morton (Amy Ryan) to make some tough changes, including the possibility of ending her tenure as the host in order to thrust Dane Cook-like comedian Daniel Tennant (Ike Barinholtz) in as the new face of the late night talk show. The reason for this? She has fostered a cold and hostile work environment in her ironically all-male writers’ room. She keeps them at arm’s length, not allowing anyone but monologue writer Tom Campbell (Reid Scott) into the actual studio and never learning any of their names. Things need to change quickly, so Newbury assigns producer Brad (Denis O’Hare) to hire a female writer to add a diversity hire so it doesn’t make it seem like she “hates women”.
In comes the bright-eyed and eager Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling) who doesn’t have the necessary experience, previously having worked at a chemical plant in Pennsylvania as an efficiency expert. But her timing is perfect and she’s thrust into the orbit of Newbury’s all-male writing room as they slowly feel the noose tightening around their neck. She has to battle their sexist attitudes towards her, as well as the hellish attitude from Newbury as well.
Written by Kaling, Late Night has some positive things to say about the way woman are treated differently – not only in the workplace but in every facet of life. There are double standards held, especially in such a demanding and competitive job such as being a late night talk show host. Although she’s surrounded by comedic writers and producers who have been veterans of the business for years, they are struggling to find new ways to adapt to the game, not for a lack of creativity but because Newbury stubbornly refuses to adapt to the changing times. With Molly’s arrival, she challenges not only the writers but Newbury to think outside of the box and find a way to keep her familiar heightened wit and make it in tune with modern sensibilities in a world that survives on viral content.
It’s hard to go into a film like this and expect it to totally subvert your expectations and offer something totally new, fresh and surprising. But Late Night does indeed work because of its enjoyable script and the two lead performances from Thompson and Kaling, with the former reminding us with ease why she is truly one of the best in the business. Thompson is able to shift between the demanding and hellish boss and the suave and charming comedian and host without missing a beat.
Kaling is her typically charming self, while also finding enough dramatic range and heart to go toe-to-toe with such a force as Thompson. The rest of the cast features welcome players, such as an underused but still welcome warm presence from John Lithgow as Katherine’s husband Walter, as well as a great collection of character actors who make up of the whacky writing room staff (Hannibal‘s Hugh Dancy, Max Casella, I Tonya‘s Paul Walter Hauser, John Early).
There are moments of Late Night that feel a bit too safe and predictable, and it doesn’t exactly break the mold when it comes to genre expectations. The big dramatic character moments don’t quite ring nearly as true, which holds Late Night back from reaching its more well-rounded full potential. Ultimately, it has enough heart and is elevated by its performances, as well as a super confident script that navigates modern topics with smart confidence that never feels false.
Late Night is out June 7th in limited release and goes wide on June 14th.