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Late Night
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by Jay Seaver

"Never quite so funny or cutting as it's supposed to be."
3 stars

It's not unusual for a movie to take a few shortcuts in order to make a story more dramatic or fit into two hours; the weird thing about "Late Night" is that the filmmakers seemingly can't help but mention that it's a compressed and simplified story, saying "isn't this unlikely?" every once in a while. Maybe that sort of self-awareness is an inevitable result of making a movie about your job making television as writer and star Mindy Kaling et al have done here - the filmmakers can't help but be aware of what they are doing - but it also means you kind of know they could do better by Kaling, Emma Thompson, and the rest of the group.

Thompson plays Katherine Newbury, who in a better universe than our has been hosting a late-night talk show for the better part of three decades, although many would say her show has not actually been good for a while. When she fires a writer and gets a bee in her bonnet about her long-time producer (Denis O'Hare) hiring a woman to replace him - she has an all-white/male writers' room - Molly Patel (Kaling) is in the right place at the right time, despite her lack of experience. Though Katherine, facing replacement, is determined to take a more active role (many of the writers have not actually met her), she's initially reluctant to modernize the show or utilize more topical material.

There's a fair amount of ambition to what at first glance can seem like a simple comedy of mismatched partners, but the trick with this sort of plan is finding a way to distribute this ambition well. There's weight to Katherine's side of the story, because she's had to live with compromises and little hypocrisies and it's formed into an interesting web, while Molly's issues are simpler and more prone to be confronted directly, even if they are no less important. There are bitter and rowdy jokes to be pulled from both - Kaling and director Nisha Ganatra are good at locating them - but the experienced half of the movie feels more concrete, while the bits about Molly breaking in have a harder time finding handholds.

Of course, a lot of the Katherine half of the movie working so well is that Emma Thompson is reliably brilliant, and the very fact that many movies obviously fail to use ten percent of what she has to give is the sort of thing that a viewer can take into Late Night and apply to her character (see, for instance, the five minutes she gets in Men in Black: International two screens down). The filmmakers frame things so that her character is not just the remote, aloof figure she could have been, but also let her play into that when it's good for a joke. It's delightful to see her be sharp and tremendously funny, and every scene she gets with John Lithgow as her husband has at least some bit of magic to it. It's terrific to see them let their guards down around each other, so natural that they will have earned the audience's belief when things become literally theatrical toward the end (in a scene well-presented enough to sneak an extra bit of gender-role inequality in there to mull over even though it's not otherwise referenced or the point).

For all that Kaling often doesn't seem to give her character's side of the story as much as she does the other, she's nevertheless acutely aware as a writer what she does well as a performer and getting the most out of it. She's good at playing up Molly's eagerness to please without making it desperate, for instance, or finding the spots where pushiness has a charming or useful side. If she'd given herself an opportunity to play off someone who was as much a match for her as Lithgow is for Thompson, and a real story rather than a bunch of necessary moments to check off, the movie would really have something.

Alas, "Late Night" seldom moves from one situation to another organically, and it often seems like everybody involved knows this, because characters will come out and say that something is strange or unexpected. It's got enough good bits to get by and you can't really go far wrong giving Emma Thompson this much screen time, but it's seldom all that it can be otherwise.

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originally posted: 07/01/19 18:50:20
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2019 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

8/12/20 Louise (the real one) Thompson is excellent - the rest: meh. 3 stars
7/02/19 Louise Atrocious trash of the lowest order, quite unwatchable. 1 stars
6/19/19 Bob Dog Shallow screenplay sinks power politics polemic. 1 stars
6/09/19 Charles Tatum These kinds of movies are so laughably out-moded in this day and age. 1 stars
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Directed by
  Nisha Ganatra

Written by
  Mindy Kaling

  Emma Thompson
  Mindy Kaling
  John Lithgow
  Reid Scott
  Denis O'Hare
  Amy Ryan

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