Defending Your Show (Film Review: “Late Night”)

A crusty British comedy icon is about to be tossed off her throne, when a fresh-faced multi-cultural hire stumbles in whose sincerity may just save her career and her soul. What? It could happen . . .

SnapShot Plot

OK, for the record and in the spirit of full transparency I must admit that I would pay good money just to watch Emma Thompson read the phone book (assuming one could even still find phone books these days). And in the congenial, albeit slightly tame comedy, Late Night, indeed it’s all on Thompson to carry a film that – in lesser hands – would sink under the weight of the too familiar. Written by (and co-starring) Mindy Kaling it’s the story of a lioness of show business, Katherine Newbury (Thompson’s character) whose late night comedy talk show is, like the host herself, beginning to show its age. Katherine is basically Johnny Carson in drag, affable and charming to an audience of worshiping strangers but utterly lacking in the human warmth department. She’s commonly referred to by the number of Emmy awards she’s amassed over the years rather than the type of person she is, or – more to the point – the mentor or role model she could have been to those coming up behind her. No, Katherine Newbury is respected (she’s Excellence without Compromise) but not loved or even liked. In the thankless role of her husband, and the only person in the world she can even stand but in this case truly cares about, John Lithgow does what he can with the part, which is written so thinly you can almost see through it.

When her network informs her that she’s being replaced by a hip young comic (who of course possesses the sophistication of a troll), Katherine is determined to turn a corner. Of course she has no idea where to start, other than hiring outside of her all male, white prep school barn of regular writers. In walks Molly (Kaling’s character), a complete neophyte with absolutely no writing or TV experience whatsoever, whose guileless sincerity and inability to kiss up to the boss immediately makes her a pariah in the writers’ room. It’s just a matter of time, though, before Katherine realizes that this clever and honest young woman may be just the refreshing voice she needs to revamp not only her flagging ratings but to put her squarely on the map to becoming human.

Parting Shot

Aside from the odd bit of casting John Lithgow as Katherine’s truth-telling yet cuckolded husband, there’s much to admire in Late Night, although the Message at times weighs the Comedy down, making the jokes land more with a titter rather than a belly laugh. Mindy Kaling has proven herself a refreshingly clean and decent comedic presence in TV and now, movies, and much like the character she plays here, she doesn’t mind giving the laugh to others. In fact, she’s probably a better writer than a performer, lacking in the raw emotion department but smart enough to make those scenes more tongue-in-cheek than real.

Messages abound in Late Night, mostly revolving around themes of Inclusion, Multiculturalism, Gender Equality and the like. But to me, the takeaway sits squarely at the description of Katherine’s achievements in the male-dominated world of late night comedy; she is “Excellence without Compromise.” But here’s the thing about the zero sum pursuit of Excellence: it usually leaves no room for one’s Humanity. And sometimes it’s good to let them see you sweat.

Late Night is presently streaming on Amazon Prime.

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