11:00 am EDT, June 7, 2019

‘Late Night’ movie review: Plenty of charm but short on comedy

Mindy Kaling and Emma Thompson make for a charming duo in Late Night, but the movie lacks the comedy and wit it so desperately deserves.

Sundance Film Festival favorite Late Night, penned by Mindy Kaling and directed by Nisha Ganatra, is predicated upon a simple idea: What if a long-running late night television show was led by a woman?

From the outset, Late Night invites the audience to enter a fantasy of its own making, one where late night TV is not entirely composed of straight white men. The film dares to assume that a woman, in this case a British comedienne by the name of Katherine Newbury (played by the wonderful Emma Thompson) could lead a late night show, not just in 2019, but for multiple decades preceding it. But when the film opens with Katherine accepting an award for her longstanding achievement in comedy — a scene where the jokes barely land but the sentiment succeeds — it establishes that Late Night is far more concerned with Katherine’s legacy than it is with her comedy. If that sounds a little disappointing, it’s because it is.

Katherine, who we believe at first to be a successful and esteemed comedian, turns out to be pretty bad at her job. Her show is in a slump (a decade long slump, according to the ratings) and her own complacency threatens her future as the face of Late Night with Katherine Newbury. When the Network president Caroline Morton tells Katherine this season will be her last, the movie assumes a familiar comeback narrative that draws from the energy and spunk of Katherine’s newest writer Molly (played by Mindy Kaling).

After finagling her way onto Katherine’s writing staff (I won’t say how since it’s one of the best bits in the movie), Molly comes face to face with her hero…and her own antithesis. Whereas Molly is bubbly and expressive, Katherine is reserved and cold, even hostile. Late Night takes shape around these two women, focusing on their disparate yet intertwined professional careers while demonstrating how their personal lives mirror one another.

Molly is shown to be a positive and corrective force of change in the world of Late Night. Not only does Molly help Katherine to see the error of her ways, but she also helps improve the atmosphere in the writer’s room and is instrumental in bringing the show back to life. Unfortunately, the script struggles to give Molly much characterization outside of her function as a plot device; in using her as a solution for all the conflict in the movie, her own character ends up feeling one dimensional and dramatically inert.

Molly and Katherine’s wildly different backgrounds open the door to some interesting ideas about privilege and status, but Late Night is far more interested in drawing easy, and digestible platitudes from this dynamic. It’s far easier, and funnier, to depict the divide between Katherine’s wealth and success and Molly’s lack thereof as a sort of slapstick joke than actually forcing the characters to reckon with that divide.

Instead, we’re given two familiar and elementary character arcs — one of a successful comedian finding her way back to her voice with the help of a new protégé, the other of a comedic ingénue elbowing her way into a world that doesn’t give a shit about what she has to say.

The familiarity of Late Night makes it one of the least surprising movies I’ve seen in a while. Every moment is so obviously telegraphed, written with the subtlety of a freight train, as if the movie is actually afraid you might not understand what’s happening. It’s a shame that it goes this route as this story with a sharper script could have delivered something truly special.

One does get the sense that Late Night is the product of someone deciding to make a movie about a woman with a late night TV show and not knowing how to actually write that story in a compelling way. The numerous plot contrivances, the abundance of flat jokes, and the rote take on gender and sexual politics make Late Night feel late to the party — arriving five years after it should have.

Late Night is by no means a bad movie. Quite the opposite! It’s exceedingly entertaining, funny enough, and charming as hell. It’s like The Devil Wears Prada except less glamorous with nowhere near the same frequency of biting one-liners. It’s the kind of movie you want to watch on a plane, or with your parents, or after two glasses of wine on a Sunday night. Even when the jokes don’t land, Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling still shine. The two talented performers ride a huge wave of charm, lighting up the screen and turning some stale jokes into slam dunks thanks to their line readings alone.

On paper, Late Night may look like a slam dunk, but the final product benefits from tempered expectations. Much like a mediocre joke, Late Night is best suited to a supportive audience.

‘Late Night’ is now playing in theaters

Our Score

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