"LATE NIGHT" — 2½ stars — Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, John Lithgow, Hugh Dancy, Reid Scott, Ike Barinholtz, Amy Ryan, Max Casella, Paul Walter Hauser; R (for language throughout and some sexual references); running time: 102 minutes
Editor's note: This review originally ran in January 2019 as part of the Deseret News' 2019 Sundance Film Festival coverage.
PARK CITY — “Late Night” feels like a talk show take on “The Devil Wears Prada,” injected with a dose of social justice.
Directed by Nisha Ganatra and featured at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, “Late Night” follows the adventures of a young writer who breaks the gender barrier at a long-running late-night talk show.
Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) is a veteran late-night host, highly decorated with a room full of Emmys, but a stranger to a writers' room full of staff she’s never actually met. She’s bitingly funny, sometimes heartless and driven, but increasingly out of touch.
The head of her network (Amy Ryan) announces that Katherine will shortly be replaced with a faux-macho comic (Ike Barinholtz) who will no doubt steer the ship toward the lowest common denominator along with the rest of the competition. So, in a desperate attempt to shake things up, Katherine decides to put a female writer on her staff.
Enter Molly (Mindy Kaling), a bubbly, just-happy-to-be-here girl from Pennsylvania who arrives in the right place at the right time. Molly breaks the writers' room streak of white male Ivy Leaguers, and she actually has the gall to suggest the show has room for improvement.
So while Molly learns the ropes, constantly at risk of losing her job in a cutthroat business, circumstances force Katherine to gradually let down her guard and listen to the little people. In the background, the clock ticks down as the specter of Katherine’s replacement looms, ready to claim another TV show for the status quo.
Along the way, “Late Night” tries to address a kaleidoscope of contemporary issues in addition to the plight of women in the male-dominated workplace, with varying degrees of success. At different points, the story nods to the #MeToo Movement, the nature of modern celebrity (namely, do YouTube stars deserve actual status?), generation gaps — Katherine routinely struggles to understand anything internet-related — and the question of whether talk show hosts should remain politically neutral.
If your answer to that last question is yes, prepare to be disappointed.
While "Late Night" makes some important points about its myriad issues, their complexity leads to some mixed messaging. Kaling's script does a good job of illustrating the challenging nature of issues like the balance between meritocracy and diversity, but its solutions — such as a brief happy-ending sequence — feel a little too ambiguous to avoid reading along political lines.
The film's MVP is Kaling, who also wrote the film's screenplay and brings the same bright appeal she lent to TV’s “The Office.” “Late Night” features a number of genuinely funny moments, such as a running gag about Molly never being able to find a moment alone in the women’s restroom.
In the supporting cast, Reid Scott plays the territorial head monologue writer who pushes back when Molly starts to suggest jokes for Katherine. Hugh Dancy plays one of the few writers to be kind to Molly, before making it clear he only intends to sleep with her. Molly’s only true sympathetic ear comes from Katherine’s NYU professor emeritus husband (John Lithgow), who suffers from Parkinson’s.1 comment on this story
Unfortunately, after starting off with an appealing, light-hearted tone, "Late Night" shifts gears with the kind of R-rated dialogue that one probably would find in a writers' room, but also suggests a more adult film. For a movie about breaking barriers, the ending feels a little forced and predictable, tying off all the plot threads.
Overall, Kaling's charm holds the ship together, but beneath the bright smile "Late Night" has a few leaks.
Rating explained: “Late Night” draws an R rating for scattered profanity and some frank sexual dialogue.