Movie Review: Late Night (2019)
What a disappointment.
I get why screenwriter/star Mindy Kaling created up-and-comer Molly Patel (Kaling), who gets a dream job writing for iconic female late-night host Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson), since Kaling was an intern for Conan O’Brien and the sole woman and person of color on the writing staff of “The Office” back in 2005. She knows this stuff.
I just don’t get why the female late-night host. If Kaling was a rarity in writing rooms, Newbury didn’t exist. Not in the early ’90s, when her show supposedly started, and not today, when all the late-night slots are taken by Stephen, Seth, two Jimmys and a James. If you’re riffing on the sexism of the industry, as this movie does, why create a character that makes the industry seem progressive in comparison?
And why make her British? And starchy and out-of-touch? Yes, apparently off-camera Johnny Carson was abrupt and unavailable, but on-camera he was the epitome of sly charm—and we don’t see that from Newbury. Yes, Carson got famously out-of-touch near the end of his 30-year reign, leading to Dana Carvey’s blistering “I did not know that ... Wild, weird stuff...” imitation, so I guess that’s a good avenue to explore, but you need the other elements. You need someone who seems funny. Was Ellen DeGeneres too busy for the role? Lily Tomlin? How about Julia Louis-Dreyfus or Tina Fey—aged 10 years? Thompson’s a pro but I saw nothing about her character that would make me think she’d been a national comic treasure for almost 30 years.
Not very PC
I must’ve seen the trailer a zillion times during the Seattle International Film Festival. It was playing the Centerpiece Gala, a prestigious slot, but the more I saw the trailer the more I worried. That’s the best they’ve got? What’s in this not-very-funny trailer?
Yep. “Late Night” is supposed to be about funny people and it’s not very funny.
Newbury gets off some zingers but overall she’s entitled and out-of-touch. She thinks she doesn’t have to keep up-to-date to keep an audience. New writers are told: Nothing happened after 1995, not the internet, and certainly not social media, so don’t mention any of that. Plus she’s sexist. Her writing staff consists of eight Yalie white men. Her personal assistant, Brad (Denis O’Hare), tells her, “I think you have a problem with living female writers on your staff,” and when it becomes an issue, he’s ordered to find her one. And there, across his desk, is Molly Patel, who works at a chemical plant, and has never done standup or comedy writing of any kind; she’s just a fan of the show. But she gets the gig. Because she’s a woman.
Also because she gets off this line.
Brad: A TV writer’s room is ... It’s not very PC. It can be a pretty masculine environment.
Molly: Oh, I saw most of the writers. I’m not overly worried about masculinity.
It’s one of the movie’s last funny lines.
That sets it all up. Molly is young, non-white, kinda hip; Newbury is old, very white, and decidedly unhip; and the movie’s trajectory is for Newbury to open up enough to Molly’s ideas to save both of their careers.
Except the stuff Molly comes up with? The worst. We get a recurring on-the-street bit called “Katherine Newbury: White Savoir,” where she helps two black dudes hail a cab, a fat woman buy clothes (I think), and some other dude get fries by complaining on social media. This is what turns the show from soporific into “a viral sensation.” I remember my father used to complain about movies in which some fictional Broadway show would get a standing ovation opening night when it was so bad it would probably close in a week, and this is the modern version of that. Even if people got the joke, and there isn't much of one, Newbury would be skewered more than celebrated for “White Savoir.”
As for that politically incorrect writers room? I wish. These guys are sweethearts. There’s a cute monologue writer (Reid Scott of “VEEP”), an older, empathetic, I’ll-be-fired-any-day-now dude (Max Casella), a lothario (Hugh Dancy), a fat guy (Paul Walter Hauser), and some non-descripts. At one point, they wonder over this “diversity hire” but they kind of whisper it. Mostly they’re there to support Molly. When a story breaks that Katherine slept with the lothario, cheating on her Parkinson’s-ridden husband Walter (John Lithgow), they all seem shocked. They soul search. “I thought she really loved Walter,” says the “VEEP” dude, betrayed. It comes off more like a consciousness-raising session.
You like us again; you really like us again
The story about the affair sets up our third act. Katherine takes a sabbatical, then says she’ll return to hand over the show over to the douchey standup the network wants (Ike Barinholtz); Molly says no, she should acknowledge the affair and fight for her show. They argue. Molly’s fired. “VEEP” dude shows up at her house to buck her up. Then Katherine does what Molly suggested, wins back the crowd, wins over the network president (Amy Ryan), keeps the job, and shows up at Molly’s new apartment to woo her back. A year later, everything’s hunky dory.
I didn’t like anybody in it. No, not true. I mostly didn’t like our female leads. It’s basically another example of female storytellers (Kaling and director Nisha Ganatra) giving us flawed, unsympathetic female characters and sympathetic, supportive male ones. Which is fine, but the flaws should be interesting. “Late Night” sets up the usual false dichotomy of Hollywood films: High culture is snooty so let’s wallow in the YouTube muck. These are our only two options.
O’Hare, who’s been in everything, is good, as is Casella. I particularly liked Lithgow’s Walter. There’s a scene when Molly attends a party at Katherine’s and finds Walter upstairs alone playing the piano. She listens. They talk. It’s nice. I didn’t want to leave that room.