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Review: Late Night (2019)

Late Night (2019)

Directed by: Nisha Ganatra

Premise: The host of a late night talk show (Emma Thompson) is desperate to save her program. She directs her producer to hire an Indian-American woman (Mindy Kaling) to the otherwise white male writing staff.

What Works: Late Night is a successful mix of comedy and drama. The story is split between a fish-out-of-water tale in which an inexperienced writer finds her place among a hostile team and a rehabilitation narrative of a terrible boss who learns to be empathetic with her employees. The two narratives are intertwined effectively with each character’s story impacting the other and the filmmakers balance comedy and drama without cheapening either one. Late Night is led by Emma Thompson as a talk show host and Mindy Kaling as the new addition to the writing staff. Thompson and Kaling are well suited to their roles and each of them exemplifies the balance of comedy and drama that makes the film work so well. At the start of the story, Thompson’s character is a terror to her employees but the film reveals why she is like that and Thompson makes this terrible person empathetic. Kaling is also successful because she’s willing to be ridiculous but not stupid, and that makes her character vulnerable and likable. Late Night is consistently funny but there is an honest edge to it. Written by Kaling, who had previously been a scribe for television shows like The Office, Late Night is an unflattering portrait of what goes on behind the scenes of a television program but the film’s pointed commentary about misogyny and nepotism is balanced by an appreciation for the meritocracy of comedy; if it gets a laugh it works and Kaling’s character earns her place on the show by creating successful jokes.

What Doesn’t: Late Night has a televisual style. Director Nisha Ganatra has mostly directed for television, helming episodes of Girls, Fresh Off the Boat, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine among others and it shows in the cinematography and the blocking of the action. The style is fitting given the subject matter but Late Night often feels like a feature film adaptation of a sitcom. That’s also true of the script, written by Mindy Kaling whose filmography is also steeped in television. Many of the storylines and jokes are very sitcom-like. This is especially the case in the way conflicts are resolved. One of the hallmarks of sitcom writing is to introduce a conflict and then resolve it by the end of the episode but without the characters experiencing any kind of meaningful change. That’s largely the case in Late Night especially among the supporting characters. The workplace that Kaling’s character enters at the beginning of the film is a toxic environment and it is rehabilitated by the end of the film with very little cost to any of the characters. One of the themes of Late Night is the value of diversity in the workplace but the filmmakers overestimate what is achieved by a more diverse staff. It’s a simple solution to a complex problem.

Bottom Line: It isn’t Network or Broadcast News but Late Night is a successful mix of comedy and drama. The storytelling is a little too simplistic but the lead performances are quite good and the film is consistently funny.

Episode: #755 (June 30, 2019)