Late Night works as a gently funny (if somewhat toothless) dramedy, thanks to a combination of authentic performances and Kaling's sincere writing.
The new movie from director Nisha Ganatra, Late Night premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival, and quickly generated buzz for being one of the better mainstream workplace comedy-dramas in a while. It's also partly autobiographical for writer-star Mindy Kaling, who was inspired by her own experience as a diversity hire for The Office's writing staff while crafting Late Night's narrative and characters. And if the film is relatively lacking when it comes to biting commentary, it generally makes up the difference with good-natured humor and warmth. Late Night works as a gently funny (if somewhat toothless) dramedy, thanks to a combination of authentic performances and Kaling's sincere writing.
Emma Thompson stars in Late Night as Katherine Newbury, a once ground-breaking late night talk-show host who - in the face of declining ratings and the threat of being replaced - decides to try and mix things up by finally adding a woman to her writing staff. Enter one Molly Patel (Kaling), a chemical plant efficiency expert whose determination and idealism quickly puts her at odds with her demanding, disillusioned boss and resentful male coworkers. And yes, there are shades of The Devil Wears Prada in Late Night's premise, but the film quickly strays away from that by telling its story from Katherine and Molly's perspectives in equal measure. As a result, Late Night becomes the saga of two women at very different crossroads in their professional careers.
Kaling's script charts a fairly predictable course overall, and there's never any real doubt as to how things are ultimately going to resolve themselves, story-wise. Fortunately, it's also far more character-driven than plot oriented and keeps its attention focused squarely on Molly and Katherine, as the pair come to recognize, respectively, the importance of being true to who she is, and the parts of herself that Katherine buried in order to thrive in the men-dominated world of TV entertainment. Late Night isn't hesitant to poke fun at how straight, male, and white the realm of talk show television is, either, and takes the time to call out the double-standard of Molly's fellow writers complaining about her being hired with little in the way of experience. That being said: it typically feels as though the film is pulling its punches and refraining from really holding late night TV and its boys-club mentality's feet to the fire. It's partially an extension of the movie's kindly approach, but Late Night (arguably) could've gone further with its satire without being that much harsher, nonetheless.
Its shortcomings as an insightful dramedy aside, though, Late Night really comes to life thanks to Thompson and Kaling. The pair are pitch-perfect in their respective roles and make for an engagingly mismatched buddy duo who, in turn, represent older and more modern schools of feminist thought. Mind you, their characters still feel like real people (complete with strengths, flaws, and quirks of their own), and are all the more compelling to watch for it. The supporting cast isn't hurting for good performances either, with the standouts including John Lithgow as Katherine's husband and Denis O'Hare as her right-hand man, along with Hugh Dancy and BlacKkKlansman's Paul Walter Hauser as members of her writing staff. With so many supporting players to service, though, some of Late Night's plot threads end up having a weaker impact than others. Still, actors like Amy Ryan and Reid Scott make the most of what they've given, even if their characters (Katherine's boss and Molly's fellow monologue writer) feel like they could've used an extra scene or two of development.
Ganatra does a similarly reliable job behind the camera, and seems to draw from her experience directing series like Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Dear White People, when it comes to maintaining a steady flow of quippy exchanges and interactions here. Stylistically, Late Night usually avoids technical flourishes, but there's otherwise a cleanness to the way it's shot and edited. This keeps the focus on the movie's performances, while at the same time giving Late Night at large enough polish to prevent it from looking like a lower-budgeted network TV show. And if the film's visual storytelling techniques tend to be a little overly simple (like its use of audience reaction shots when Katherine is delivering jokes on-stage, or a montage showing Molly and Katherine's gains in professional success), it doesn't really detract from the overarching quality.
Late Night might not be as daring or pioneering as it could've been, but it's certainly a socially relevant film that doubles as an enjoyable addition to the greater tradition of workplace dramedies. Fans of Thompson and/or Kaling's larger bodies of work will definitely want to check this one out at some point, seeing as it compliments and builds upon themes and ideas that the pair have explored in movies and TV shows past. It doesn't really demand to be seen on the big screen, but it's nevertheless a fine choice for moviegoers looking for a change of pace from the current slate of tentpoles and bigger-budgeted studio offerings. Not many films can claim they feature a white savior in the best way possible, after all.
Late Night is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 102 minutes long and is rated R for language throughout and some sexual references.
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