' ' Cinema Romantico: Late Night

Monday, June 24, 2019

Late Night

The screenplay for “Late Night”, in which famed talk show host Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) finds herself on the verge of forced retirement after too long coasting on faded glory (and booking Doris Kearns Goodwin in the age of YouTube stars), is frequently as hoary as that synopsis sounds, like something culled from “The Late Shift” days of the 1990s when these TV programs felt more like lighthearted extensions of the evening news. Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling, who wrote the script) might get belted with a bag of garbage while inspirationally reciting Yeats before her first day as a new staff writer on Katherine’s show, but “Late Night” is nevertheless as earnest as its character, seriously addressing core issues of the entertainment industry even as it cannot help but express eternal optimism for the late-night format anyway. Indeed, Nisha Ganatra’s film feels more indebted to the small screen than the big screen, evoked in the oddly cramped moment where Molly first steps on the Late Night stage, never going wide to revel in the splendor of the place and how its history overwhelms her. And though Thompson’s lead performance is so electric she livens up even the most basic point-and-shoot frames, she is screaming out for a close-up worthy of her movie star magnetism or a wide shot that lets us get a sense of how her energy can hold an entire cavernous room. Alas.

That Molly, a quality control specialist at a chemical plant with dreams of writing and performing comedy, even gets the job is only because she happens to be interviewing for it with Katherine’s right-hand man (Dennis O’Hare) at the exact instant Katherine, having only recently discovered her show has long been written by a gaggle of white men, calls and harangues him to hire a woman. He follows the order, Molly earning the spot over the younger brother of the head monologue writer, Tom (Reid Scott). If to him this is merely a requisite hire for diversity, and if to her this is a triumph over nepotism, then to the movie it is refreshingly both, and which is where Kaling’s screenplay is best, threading both these ideas through the story rather than leaving them as one-off jokes.

Her character is made to earn her place, which she eventually does, not simply being forthright in her assessment of the show’s staleness but in concocting jokes and bits that play directly to the host’s candor and further the movie’s skewering of racial and societal assumptions, like recasting the old Letterman bit about a man in a bear suit trying to hail a cab as Katherine playing White Savior by hailing cabs for people of color, which Thompson plays less as social justice warrior and more with dry contempt for society at large. The other staff writers, meanwhile, while a Wonder Bread loaf of Harvard Lampoon dolts, are also portrayed as where they are because of a system to which they remain blind or willfully refuse to acknowledge.

Then again, these writers are mostly just one big entity, aside from Charlie (Hugh Dancy), who extends an olive branch to Molly. That he turns out to be a romantic grifter of sorts is obvious, though to Kaling’s credit the script does not linger overmuch – nay, it doesn’t even really linger at all – on her character’s heartbreak. In the typical scene where she shows up at Charlie’s apartment only to discover he’s with another woman, Kaling opts out of melancholy for a sort of “duh, of course he is!” self-amusement. Still, this subplot is evocative of the script’s penchant for the obvious and its sometimes more punchless politics, the character of Charlie mostly existing just to spring a narrative trap down the road, one involving Katherine, and then conspicuously evading the topic of workplace power dynamics.

But if the narrative complications are often only nominally complicated, Thompson’s performance is not, as she plays straight to the notion of her character having to embrace her own complications to alter her comedy to maintain commercial relevancy, fusing Katherine’s artistic enlightenment with practical business concerns. And though the character changes, she doesn’t really soften, Thompson recognizing that feisty exterior makes Katherine her, amending her approach without necessarily changing who she is. Plus, Thompson is really, really funny! She wrings 110% from 100% bits and lines and, even more impressively, wrings 100% from 75% bits and lines. Like, Katherine issuing her writers numbers since she fails to remember all their names, leading to a climactic punchline that you can, as they say, see coming from miles away but which still made me laugh out loud simply because Thompson’s drolly apologetic delivery is so damn impeccable; a la the great comic her character is supposed to be, Thompson makes the expected seem spontaneous.

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