There’s a lot to admire in the new comedy LATE NIGHT written by Mindy Kaling and directed by Nisha Ganatra. Stars Kaling and Emma Thompson give compelling, committed performances. It’s got some big laughs and plenty of pathos too. And it says some necessary things about white, male privilege and the never-ending chasing of ratings driving so much of the TV industry. But even with all that going for it, the film feels…off. It satirizes the world of late-night television talk shows yet is wildly inaccurate in its depiction. Based on Kaling’s experience as a writer on the sitcom THE OFFICE, her script indicts sexism in the comedy world without ever getting a real bead on the talk shows she’s supposed to be parodying.
The problems start with the premise. Thompson plays Katherine Newbury, a veteran late-night talk show host for over two decades. Really? In what world is that? The world of late night television is notoriously male. Samantha Bee, the obvious replacement for Jon Stewart on THE DAILY SHOW when he stepped down, was notably passed over, but we’re supposed to believe that a Brit intellectual has been holding down a late night network show for decades? Absurd. Granted, Joan Rivers got her own late night talk show in 1989, but it lasted only 4 years, and the sexism in Hollywood and the press doomed it from the start.
As if the film’s premise isn’t unrecognizable, one that Thompson herself called “science fiction” the other night on Colbert’s show, we’re supposed to believe that Newbury has lasted that long in the brutally competitive world of late night even though her show’s ratings have slipped for over a decade. Again, what was Kaling thinking? Even novices know that bad ratings would’ve ripped Newbury off the air no matter how many Emmy’s she’s supposed to have won.
To add insult to the injury, this film cannot even get a consistent take on its host and her niche in the market. It’s okay that Newbury is presented as a dry, British comic in a Craig Ferguson kind of mold, along with a recognizable stage with its desk, band, and opening monologue. But then the show stumbles by having the host book people like historian Doris Kearns Goodwin to be the first guest? Really? Is this Conan O’Brien or Dick Cavett from the 70s? Kaling’s script is all over the map like that.
Then there’s Newbury’s writing staff. She never visits them to work through the show and doesn’t know any of their names except one she slept with and one who’s been with her for 20 plus years. They’re all white and oafish sorts too, but somehow these aging frat boys are the types that Newbury’s show has hired to write her brand of intellectual comedy that books Goodwin? The most laughable element of this film is the absurdity of such logic.
Then there’s the fact that the monologue has only one writer. Kaling has to know that no talk show is like that, so why write something that mars the accuracy of her white privilege arguments? She’s more accurate in capturing the ego of late-night comics, someone bullying and insecure in the ways that Johnny Carson and David Letterman were reputed to be during their heydays, but they were spoofed better 25 years ago with THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW. And with all Newbury’s problems with ratings, her staff, her bullying, and the fact that she sleeps with coworkers, it’s doubtful that she’d still be on the air in the #MeToo environment.
If Kaling was going for some sort of THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA villain in Newbury, that’s fine, but she could’ve at least been accurate in the way she wrote the late night world. And Thompson, one of our best actresses, struggles to make sense of a confounding part. Newbury is vicious, potty-mouthed, a stick in the mud with everyone, including her long-suffering show producer Brad (Denis O’Hare, a great actor without a clue what to do with a terribly underwritten role), yet she’s the kind of zany host who wears designer sneakers with her fitted $3,000 suits. Who is this person? She’s unrecognizable.
Kaling does slightly better creating accurate characters in the writer’s room. Head writer Tom (Reid Scott) has the expected rich kid’s ego as he smirks at everyone and everything. Max Casella’s Burditt scores too conveying precisely the type of show biz war horse who’d survive in the industry for 30 years. But why is there nothing written into Hugh Dancy’s character of Charlie to suggest that he’s a funny writer, let alone a successful, working stand-up on the side? Maybe it’s casting, but nothing about Dancy screams comedy. Nor is there anything even remotely smart about Paul Walter Hauser’s character of Mancuso. He comes off like a complete and clueless imbecile who wouldn’t last 10 minutes in the cutthroat world of network television.
The best writing Kaling does here is for the character she plays. Molly, who lucks into the writer’s room when the show is trying to modernize, does have genuine wit to her, as well as an ability to hold her own against rooms full of people rooting for her to fail. Kaling is a vivid screen presence too, never pushing too hard to appear charming or smart, and often wise enough to let audiences see her thinking before answering. She also writes some sweet pathos for John Lithgow in a small supporting part as Newbury’s long-suffering husband. Funny, but most of the more serious parts of the film resonate better than the attempted comedy.
Unfortunately, even though Kaling should be the central focus of the film, the story becomes more and more about Newbury, and the character wears out her welcome early and never really recovers. Despite Thompson’s ability to breathe life into emotionally cut-off characters, as she’s done in everything from THE REMAINS OF THE DAY to LOVE, ACTUALLY, the Oscar-winning star fails to infuse Newbury with enough relatability for us to are. Sure, the host learns to bend, trying out Molly’s new ideas, but the best that Kaling could come up with is having Newbury adlib man-on-the-street interviews? Letterman, Jay Leno, and O’Brien had done such bits decades ago, and such schtick would not play as all that fresh or novel with a modern audience.
Kaling would’ve been wiser to make Newbury a riff on Bee, a female comic hosting a ‘woke’ and timely show taking down the patriarchy each week and running into problems with those in power she targets. Or Kaling could have written Newbury as a male character, one marred by all those horrible characteristics, who is forced to change all of it. As it stands, casting Thompson in such a role may have seemed like empowerment, but that choice throws off most of Kaling’s repeated points about white, male privilege. Her argument for equality deserves better clarity, and we deserve a smarter film.