There’s an inherent disconnect that runs through this film very plainly and definitively titled Late Night: it seems completely out of step with the rhythms of late night television. Scene after scene depicts late night monologues and interviews with an awkwardness that compounds as the film progresses, since apparently none of the enormous comedic talents in the cast and crew paid attention to the cadences of late night TV production during their countless guest appearances on such programs. It feels like actors playing dress-up, a lack of authenticity that is especially glaring considering that so much of the screenplay focuses on this very specific format. It’s like the filmmakers just wanted to gloss over most of the identifiable trademarks of late night TV and hoped that would be enough for an unsuspecting audience.
All of that probably makes me seem like a variety show authenticity cop. And it’s true that, as one who was brought up on late night comedy from an unnecessarily early age, I’m more likely to be bothered by insider minutiae than most ticket-buyers. After all, is Late Night really about late night? No, Mindy Kaling’s screenplay uses that world as the backdrop for a story about the perils of women in the entertainment industry – the tightrope that women walk in that male-dominated circus, even for those very few who have somehow garnered a position of relative power. That theme is intensely relevant and riddled with complexities of which Kaling is clearly aware, though the complexities run too deep for this particular screenplay to fully reckon with.
Not that Kaling isn’t fully displaying her ambition as a writer – if anything, she’s aiming at too many targets and therefore isn’t able to squarely hit the bullseye on any of them. This is the story of Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson), a venerated late night host and winner of countless Emmys whose cold and intense drive for a certain type of perfection has led her program into a rut in recent years. Stagnant in content and sinking in the ratings, Katherine is told this year will be her last, with a bloviating chauvinist shock comic (Ike Barinholtz, who isn’t permitted to indulge his razor-sharp satiric inclinations) waiting in the wings to take her place. This is also the story of Molly Patel (Kaling), an eternal optimist who is randomly plucked from her job as a Quality Control Supervisor to join Katherine’s all-white-male writing staff in the hopes of injecting a fresh perspective in the fledgling show. Is this the story of Katherine and Molly’s relationship as two women of different generations and ethnicities who navigate the inherent sexism and tokenism of the entertainment machine to change the paradigm? It certainly wants to be, but each individual story thread becomes so burdensome that the central relationship never fully actualizes.
You can tell Late Night is something of a fantasy since no such female late night titan is permitted to exist in the real world, and because the film is inexorably drawn to the sort of soul-bearing soapbox progressivism that results when themes aren’t adequately embedded in the narrative and the satire isn’t sharp enough to speak for itself. That might be because Kaling’s screenplay is so densely packed with ideas, expressed via multiple subplots, that none of them are given adequate space to breathe. Katherine is depicted as a sort-of female Letterman, though we aren’t ever allowed to see the sharp wit that made her a legend – and Thompson, who is not only one of our greatest actresses but also an incredibly witty performer, seems boxed into pre-packaged bits by the film’s awkward portrayal of the late night comedy format. Side characters drift in and out of focus as needed, in order to deliver overtly expository dialogue and later to punctuate the screenplay’s points, all of which revolve around topical hot buttons, from sexual harassment in the entertainment industry, to nepotism, to lack of inclusion, to tokenism, to cutthroat bottom-line-driven network execs. It’s no surprise that a talented writer like Kaling would have to such on her mind, but Late Night can’t make them all these ideas coalesce in a swift 100 minutes, which is ultimately far more disappointing than its inability to adequately convey the optics of a late night monologue.