Starring Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, John Lithgow, Hugh Dancy, Amy Ryan
Emma Thompson’s Miranda Priestly-like performance is what you’ll buy a ticket to see, but Mindy Kaling’s razor-sharp script is what gives you your money’s worth. One of the breakout films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, one that caused a bidding war, “Late Night” is another film with dual female leads (which is becoming a wonderfully welcome common occurrence). Kaling makes the kind of jump from TV to film that Tina Fey did when she penned and starred in “Bridesmaids.” That script earned her an Oscar nomination and this one could do the same for Kaling. “Late Night” balances entertainment and touchy, culturally relevant zingers with finesse, opening up endless debate on everything from sexism to white male privilege to diversity within the workplace. Showing their skirt a bit by actually working a Golden Globe award into the script, there likely won’t be a more Golden Globe-friendly contender this year.
After more than forty Emmy Awards and over thirty years in television, late night’s only female host Katherine Newbury (Thompson) is being phased out by the networks new president (Ryan). Difficult to work for, Newbury is challenged by her operations manager (Denis O’Hare) to hire a female writer since all the show writers are white males. Molly Patel (Kaling) lands the job, a dream opportunity for someone with no television experience who works a chemical plant job in Pennsylvania. Her opinions about the show and it’s direction forward are not popular with Newbury who refuses to embrace anything modern like social media. Molly’s presence is also unwelcomed by the toxic “bro” culture the men have in their workspace. Over time, after multiple firings/re-hirings, Newbury grows fond of Molly’s honesty and clever ideas that challenge the seasoned talk show host.
Kaling makes the kind of television jump Tina Fey did when she penned and starred in “Bridesmaids”.
“Late Night” illustrates some of the issues that currently plague the American workplace, many of them uncomfortably played out in this screenplay. I couldn’t help but notice the absence of white, male, film critics at the Houston press screening, many of whom clearly mirror the white male writers featured in the story. Unfortunately, it is likely that the very people who could learn something from the film will probably never see it. Kaling’s story structure resembles “The Devil Wears Prada,” but it’s her original characters and the message she is delivering that ends the parallel. Thompson has so many scene-stealing, meme-worthy moments it’s hard to pick the best one. However, it’s the drama within this smart comedy that will earn her a ninth Golden Globe nomination. Her Oscar chances are less likely and entirely dependent on the other film releases this year that could be better.
The film progresses to a certain point where the final act becomes inevitable, lessons are learned, people change and change does occur. It’s how we get there that matters and most of the plotting works, even when it’s familiar, because of the writing and Thompson’s winking devil performance. For the most part “Late Night” resists the urge to explore the relationship part of the story (aka the least interesting aspect of ‘Prada’). There are a variety of life lessons explored in the film, the most important of which is to work together and respect each other. In its own way, “Late Night” is an inspirational film without bashing the viewer over the head with that notion. The movies that teach us the most are often the ones that do so in hindsight.
Thompson is wonderfully commanding but it’s Kaling’s insightful, razor sharp script that steals the show.