@Filmouse, Edinburgh from Fri 19 Jul 2019.
There’s an issue with American media (in the movie, far too many in real life). One of the highest-rated talk shows ain’t down with the kids. Viral-free, Tweet-free and with a revulsion of shameless reality star guests, Late Night finds national treasure, Emma Thompson, playing Katherine Newbury.
With more Emmys and Golden Globes than most people have silverware, Katherine hits out within a male-dominated field. Her issue? The show sucks. Seeking help, chief writer Brad hires Molly for diversity, played by Mindy Kaling who also writes the film.
Thompson does a tremendous turn in deflecting away from Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly of Devil Wears Prada fame. Her portrayal of Newbury is in essence far closer to that of David Letterman’s later years hosting. Her tongue is scathing, her emotions quite raw when a vulnerability is right for the occasion. Without question, the films steadfast assets are Thompson and Kaling, who elevate an otherwise decent flick into an earnest comedy which has a weighty degree of commentary.
As a diversity hire, Molly faces three key hurdles: she’s not white, has zero experience and she hasn’t got a dick. We avoid drudging into the tropes of an old genre. Kaling’s writing, no doubt relating to her time on The Office as the only female writer in its infancy, takes a concept and elevates it into a respectable, and thankfully humorous premise. Molly is the reverse of Katherine: highly strung, anxious and emotionally super-charged.
Behind the laughs, Late Night looks into what a female anchor can draw attention to, which her male colleagues couldn’t. When it seems to be heading into a predictable route, a few sharp turns take us away. Drenching itself into the discourses of ethnic hiring and slut-shaming, Kaling doesn’t go for the climax we would expect. In a well thought out manoeuver, they choose a realistic end in favour of an accessible ‘moral win’.
You can’t shake off a hunch that two incarnations of the film were in production. Kalin’s, and the other which was for trailer shots and to keep the studio content. Where Late Night wants to, it can draw blood with a smirk. In the next scene, however, it can slip back into areas which feel watered-down. Kalin sets them up, Thompson strikes the performance out there, but little resonates from the rest of the film.
With much construction on character, the cinematography is not a focus. Moments do come, when lighting is toyed with to heighten emotional states, particularly in the ‘reveal’ and the suffering which follows. It leads to the framing of a tender moment between Thompson and her husband, played by John Lithgow, who, as you would expect, is utterly adorable. It’s a scene which serves as evidence that there’s a solid, emotional film hiding beneath the sniggering and smirks.
Late Night requires a touch re-working (ironically) at the writer’s table. There are a few awkward one-liners, which feel like pulled punches. The duo of Kaling and Thompson are the force of this movie. Together, they spark, bouncing from each other, accentuating the talents of the other. It’s a partnership which we would eagerly watch again, the two showing without much effort that they can bring the fight to the old boys of comedy.