2019 SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL: The variety of the television landscape charts a more inclusive course in the new film, “Late Night.”
Emma Thompson stars as Katherine Newbury, the prickly and abrasive host of a late night variety show. She is also the only female host, competing in a landscape that includes Fallon and Kimmel and Myers. Facing a decade-long rating slump, Katherine learns she is in danger of losing her show to a rising star of the stand-up circuit.
This happens while new writer Molly (Mindy Kaling) fights to be seen by the all-white male writing staff. Molly doesn’t realize she is a diversity hire, lucking into the spot after Katherine sets out to disprove the accusation that she hates women.
In addition to starring, Mindy Kaling also wrote the script. She brings the brand of humor she has cultivated in the writers’ rooms of “The Office” and “The Mindy Project” over the years. Kaling’s script is infused with the experience of someone who has been the only woman in a roomful of men. Who has worked under the constant threat of being fired? Kaling also infuses her own endless optimism into the story and her character.
Emma Thompson is perfectly cast as Katherine Newbury. She embodies the unpleasant woman who is allowed to get away with her biting candor because everything sounds smarter with a British accent. Thompson has proven herself time and again as a strong performer in both dramatic and comedic roles. What makes that work in “Late Night” especially is that she takes herself seriously in the funny moments. She never treats Katherine as a caricature.
The comparisons to Meryl Streep’s “The Devil Wears Prada” persona abound, and they aren’t entirely off base. But where Miranda exists almost wholly as a foil to Anne Hathaway’s Andy, Katherine Newbury has a more distinct and rounded arc. She is fully fleshed out as a complete character. This is never done to excuse or permit her unpleasant nature. Instead, it makes her more interesting all around.
Kaling’s Molly is fun and sweet. Ironically, her lead character is less developed than Katherine’s. We get to the heart of her wishes and dreams, but more of her journey involves the day to day tribulations of being the only woman and the only person of color in a writers’ room full of privileged white men who won their jobs through plain old nepotism.
“Late Night” follows the formulaic structure seen by other similarly themed comedies. What sets it apart is the development of other characters who would generally be relegated to background scenery. The fictional writing staff consists of familiar faces played by Hugh Dancy, Max Casella, Paul Walter Hauser, and Reid Scott. Their frat guy tendencies aren’t softened or forgiven, but there are opportunities for broadening understanding. The road to forge that understanding is paved with cliches and tropes, but it works. And it leads to some hilarious and memorable moments.
The cast also includes Denis O’Hare, Ike Barinholtz, Amy Ryan, and John Lithgow. They each get the chance to play to their strengths with limited screen time. Lithgow shines in two poignant scenes, one with Kaling and the other with Thompson.
Nisha Ganatra ties all of the pieces together so well, directing her first feature since 2005. Like Kaling, Ganatra built her career in comedy television, developing her talents on shows like “Fresh Off the Boat,” “Transparent,” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” Ganatra uses the typical workplace comedy beats and plot points to shift the conversation toward the benefits of inclusion.
“Late Night” is laugh-out-loud funny and charming. It is smart and sincere, too. It presents its clear and relevant message in ways that are accessible and endearing. This surefire crowd pleaser is a giant step in the fight against sexism, racism, and ageism. And it does all of that without overburdening the audience with its message. This film is pure delight.