As theaters ramp up for animated animal adventures, alien invasions, and yet another zombie apocalypse, there’s a small work-place comedy executed by an incredible cast of comedic actors offering up something different. Written by Mindy Kaling (The Mindy Project), directed by Nisha Ganatra (Brooklyn Nine-Nine), and headlined by Emma Thompson (Men in Black 3), the Amazon Studios release Late Night tackles sexism, ageism, nepotism, and the solubility of a meritocracy without giving up an inch of hilarity, even when it dips into serious character work. What results is a lovely salve for a cinematic audience bombarded by over-hyped action and CG. It’s just right for when a simple, straight-forward, relationship-focused film is all you need to take a break from the day.
After 28 years hosting “Tonight with Katherine Newbury,” Katherine (Emma Thompson) may soon find herself out of a job. Despite winning countless awards and accolades, new company president Caroline Morton (Amy Ryan) considers the once resonate show stagnant and in need of a fresh perspective. Concerned for her livelihood and legacy, Katherine tasks her producer Brad (Denis O’Hare) with finding a new writer, specifically a woman. Answering the call is Molly Patel (Kaling), a quality control specialist at a chemical plant whose love of comedy began at an early age. With Katherine’s unrelenting desire to stay on the air and Molly’s determination to be seen as more than a diversity hire, they find an opportunity for each to get exactly what they need.
Late Night marks the first time Kaling, who has already mastered television, has written a feature and it’s a strong initial outing. She understands how to set up characters and establish their needs and relationships, all while naturally developing the story to take on unexpected aspects. Unlike television, which offers the opportunity for audiences to grow to care about the characters, the pacing of Late Night is structured so that not only is the audience thrown in without a net, but everything’s designed to prop you up as you go. For instance, Thompson’s Katherine is the character the film begins with and it’s not until after much of the conflict is established that Kaling’s Molly is introduced. Considering the marketing surrounding Late Night, the expectation is for the character focus to be reversed, yet the story is better served by maintaining focus on Katherine. Though each character is on a parallel, albeit vastly different personal journey, Katherine’s creates the center around which all other plotlines revolve. Kaling defies audience expectations for the type of film Late Night is by putting the right character forward, not just the younger one. It may seem to be a small detail but this gets straight to the heart of one of the underpinning themes of Late Night: relevance by way of youth.
It’s worth noting that Thompson absolutely kills her role as Katherine, making her more than a character on a page littered with tropes. Versatile as ever, Thompson steals the focus every time she shares the screen with anyone, which is a boon given the vital nature for the character to do the same. Thompson’s performance is not the only key ingredient to Late Night, however. Kaling’s script shows she understands that humor isn’t just about a line a dialogue or slip on a banana peel, but the honesty of the delivery. Perhaps this is why Late Night is comprised of talents like John Lithgow (3rd Rock from the Sun), Reid Scott (Veep), Max Casella (Jackie), Ike Barinholtz (The Oath), and a litany of other incredible comedic talents. Refreshingly, these fine comedians only serve to prop up Thompson and Kaling, filling the roles of the supportive spouses, colleagues, etc. that woman often fall into in this type of work-place story. Not once do they overtake or intrude, nor are they subservient or subject to caricature. Even in small pieces, the supportive performances feel fully realized, making the world of Late Night seem less invented and more concrete.
There are two aspects of Late Night which prompted a strange reaction. For one, the entire film, while wonderfully directed by Ganatra, never stops feeling like an extended episode of a broadcast program. Perhaps because the narrative revolves around a television program the whole film is enveloped within that visual motif, but doing so prevents Late Night from busting through that broadcast feel and capturing a cinematic spark. The second is a smaller quip regarding styling. At a moment close to the end, a non-diegetic song is inserted as a character ascends a set of steps. If this were a romantic comedy or if Late Night were prone to such inclusions, then it wouldn’t stand out in the slightest. Instead, a brief yet highly amusing sequence shifts awkwardly as it takes on the “girl power” elements of the song. A notion the scene doesn’t require and one that is not added to by having it be included.
Considering the state of the world, the idea of seeking out a film which determinedly discusses sexism and ageism might not seem like a fun night out. In fact, audiences would presume they’d spend the runtime getting lectured. Instead, they are gifted with a breezy, charming, and often heartfelt comedy which may actually help them forget about what’s going on outside the theater walls. Sometimes we could use a break from the heaviness of the world and there’s something about an unfeigned comedy that can do the body good.
In select theaters beginning June 7th, 2019.
In theaters nationwide June 14th, 2019.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.