Director: Nisha Ganatra
Cast: Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, John Lithgow, Max Casella, Hugh Dancy, Denis O’Hare, Reid Scott, Amy Ryan
Screenplay: Mindy Kaling
102 mins. Rated R for language throughout and some sexual references.
Late Night had a lot of strong buzz coming out of Sundance earlier this year, most of it focused around Emma Thompson (Sense and Sensibility, Missing Link) and the screenplay from co-star Mindy Kaling (A Wrinkle in Time, TV’s The Office). I was able to catch the film last night at an early screening, and the buzz is absolutely correct.
Katherine Newbury (Thompson) has been the host of a late night talk-show for decades, but she comes to realize under the ownership of new network president Caroline Morton (Amy Ryan, Birdman, Beautiful Boy) that she has lost her passion, and she learns that she is soon to be replaced. Challenged by this fact, she hires a woman, Molly Patel (Kaling) to her writing staff with no writing experience. Molly’s equally challenged by the entirely male-dominated writing staff. She buts heads with Monologue Writer Tom (Reid Scott, Venom, TV’s Veep) and starts up a fling with the handsome Charlie (Hugh Dancy, Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return, TV’s Hannibal). But Molly quickly learns that she is in the lion’s den, and the leader is Katherine, a host who has never brought her personality, beliefs, or background, into the show, and the two women slowly find that they can learn a lot from each other, if they can survive each other.
This is Thompson’s movie, hands down, and it’s one of her most surprising and charismatic performances in a long and varied career. Her take on Newbury is interesting and nuanced. She says early in the film that she only ever really cared about two things: the first being her husband Walter (John Lithgow, Pet Sematary, TV’s 3rd Rock from the Sun) and the other being her show. It’s sad to hear her say it because of how she is frequently on the edge of losing both, Walter to his illness and the show to a younger, dumber host. At the same time, she fails to understand that she is self-sabotaging herself. It is only in her struggle to find an understanding of Molly’s feedback that she is able to grow, if she decides to listen to it.
Molly’s an interesting character. For the most part, her character’s inclusion in the film is a bit of a conceit, and not very realistic, but I was able to push past it for the needs of the narrative. Her character and Kaling’s performance shine in the ways that Molly is so much like Newbury. She knows not to hook up with the handsome writer she now works with, and she states that this is her dream job, and then she too self-sabotages.
The writer’s room cast of characters are all quite funny here. It’s great to see Paul Walter Hauser show up; he’s an absolute delight in everything. I think we get a nice crew of writer/showbiz archetypes that never feel flat because of the diverse collection of performers placed in the roles. Kaling’s screenplay gives most of them something to do without resorting to grouping them all together.
Director Nisha Ganatra (Chutney Popcorn, Pete’s Christmas) capably handles the film, and while her style here is nothing flashy, it is her focus on the characters and relationships that keep the whole thing afloat and moving, and the film just flies by thanks to some strong editing and tight storytelling.
Late Night showcases another powerhouse acting performance for Emma Thompson, one I expect that will be talked about in the next few months as we tick closer to the awards season. Kaling’s screenplay doesn’t provide as many laughs as I had expected, but there’s so much heart to it, and some of the funnier bits come out of the real situations she places her characters. It’s a sweet and occasionally funny trip to a part of our entertainment process not so often looked at. This comes highly recommended.
-Kyle A. Goethe