Late Night and all the images you see in this review are owned by Amazon Studios
Directed by Nisha Ganatra
I’m fairly certain that my usual theater had a poster for this and then just decided not to actually screen it so this is yet another trip to the far away theater (i.e. thirty minutes away) which honestly is usually a good sign. Not always, in fact this is the exact same story that preceded The Green Inferno, but the movies that aren’t wide enough for my local theater to get are usually have a lot more going for them; for good or ill. I hadn’t heard much about this movie and only have a vague idea of the premise, but the cast is very talented and I’m always intrigued by entertainment that’s ABOUT the making of entertainment which is always a journey in its own right. Does this glimpse into the world of late night television give us a funny and insightful look at the behind the scenes action, or will this end up being as boring as… I don’t know whichever one of those shows is the worst? Let’s find out!!
Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) is the host of a late night show that has been running for over twenty years, yet despite such a phenomenal legacy and a small army of Emmy awards behind her, the new network President Caroline Morton (Amy Ryan) tells her that the show will be cancelled in a few months and that she’ll be replaced with a hip young talent that gets those pesky millennials! With basically nothing left to lose, she starts to do the one thing she has come to fear in the last ten years; actually try. I know, truly a fate worse than death. Part of her initiate to revitalize the show includes hiring someone in the writers room whose only qualification is to NOT BE A WHITE GUY, and as luck would have it Molly (Mindy Kaling) is interviewing that day and meets those very stringent qualifications! Sure, she’s never written for a comedy show ever, but why should that stop her from filling up space and shielding the show from further criticisms of being too old and too white? AH HA! It’s not as simple as that however! For you see, Molly is not JUST a blatant diversity hire! She actually has good ideas, some decent writing chops, and may just be what this crusty old talk show needs in order to genuinely appeal to today’s audience instead of whatever crap Katherine and the other writers were gonna try to fake their way into relevance! Can Molly learn to thrive in this dinosaur of a work place and find the right balance between respecting its legacy and changing it for the better? Will Katherine realize what she’s been doing wrong all this time and genuinely change for the better before losing the best thing she has in her life? Well I mean she has her husband (John Lithgow), but is he paying the bills around here!? I DON’T THINK SO!!
This reminds me a lot of Don’t Think Twice, and whichever one you like more is perhaps a decent litmus test for what kind of comedy you like. Don’t Think Twice dove down into harsh realities and the disappointments we all go through, and while I think the movie handled it’s material with a deft hand, it felt a bit too dour for me to get on board with it. On the other side, this movie suffers a bit from not having as tight of a narrative, but it excels in the areas of heart, growth, and having a very satisfying conclusion. Given the choice, it seems that I prefer a little more cheese in my comedies than mining the depths of human sadness for something worth laughing at, and while I won’t argue that this is a FLAWLESS film, it manages to be one of the more enjoyable movies I’ve in quite a while!
Comedies are always a bit difficult to analyze in anything approaching an OBJECTIVE sense because what makes us laugh is very subjective from person to person, but what I can do is try to relate what works about the comedy and where its sense of humor is coming from. It has that very grounded New York aesthetic of movies like the aforementioned Don’t Think Twice as well as The Big Sick, so it does feel somewhat insulated to the comedy culture in that area. For the most part this means that instead of wacky characters or unbelievable situations, a lot of the humor comes from the characters who are themselves comedians and often tell jokes as part of their daily routine; helped by a lot of charismatic actors selling the material they’re given. Really, the only sort of “shtick” here is the office environment where Emma Thompson is the boss coming down from on high to whip everyone else into shape, and even as goofy as that can get, it never goes TOO far into ridiculousness and it stays relatively grounded to its premise; namely how to stay relevant when everything you know is from twenty years ago. There’s an authenticity to it that keeps the stakes grounded enough that even small absurdities or awkward situations can still stand out and garner a laugh where in more broad comedies they wouldn’t elicit so much as a chuckle. I enjoyed the material in this for the most part, though it does have a rather narrow focus of not just comedy, but comedy ABOUT comedy. For me, that’s a plus because I like movies that get you invested in how something works that you never really think about and there’s enough attention to detail in this so that you get invested in the inner workings of it all and the humor that naturally comes from it.
Where the movie also succeeds is in its themes and messaging which sounds like the exact opposite of what you’d want from a comedy, but its handling of social issues and the current state of comedy in the internet age is surprisingly nuanced and finds a really good middle ground between challenging the norms that we’ve grown to accept as well as the shades of grey that exist in life but don’t translate well to social media. Now of course, even writing that out caused me to audibly groan because so much of the “discourse” around comedy is shrouded in a lot of bad faith arguments by people looking to stir up trouble and reinforce the status quo. What jokes aren’t okay to tell, what about my FREEZE PEACH, where to draw the line between holding someone account to their actions and unrelenting backlash, it’s all topics that I’m sure we’re all tired of hearing about, but this movie manages to ride a very solid line in regards to those issues; not avoiding them or giving easy answers, but infusing them with a lot more humanity and understanding than these kind of discussions end up devolving into. Now sure, I have my own biases and perhaps this movie’s views on certain topics are distasteful to a lot of people out there, but at least for me it gave satisfying arcs to these characters and their mistakes. The major thing, at least for me, is that the answer is never to dig in your heels and close everyone off. Emma Thompson did that for a decade of her show without the slightest bit of pushback, but it drove her ratings and relevancy into the ground. Over time and through the actions of those on her staff, particularly Mindy Kaling, does she find a way to improve herself and by extension the people in her orbit. It’s a message that no doubt has its fair share of sappiness and overt sentimentality, but that tends to be more of a positive in my book even if the conclusion is a bit… unchallenging , let’s say.
Where the movie falters is in the overall flow and structure of it. On a scene by scene basis it works very well, but it also feels paced like a TV show where nothing has particularly high stakes to it and we rather seamlessly move from one thing to another without much fanfare. It works with the very grounded aesthetic as real life rarely has the BIG DEFINING MOMENTS every twenty minutes or so, but it does make it feel a bit more laid back than I think it should have been. A bit more urgency or a much more relatable threat would have helped the first two acts move along with purpose instead of sauntering past at a lackadaisical pace. Other than that, I only have a few minor nitpicks and pet peeves that this manages to trip over, so we might as well get into those. First, I REALLY don’t like any narrative where a boss will just fire someone on a whim. I don’t know, that feels REALLY petty even for me, but it’s something that always bothers me whenever I see it. Like… don’t you have to go through HR and stuff, before you kick them out the door? It’s short hand I guess and it does gives us an impression of the character doing it, but it’s not a GOOD impression which isn’t great here when we’re supposed to come around to her by the end. The other thing is, and this is less a complaint than my own inability to pay attention, but there are a bunch of close-to-middle-aged white dudes in here and I got a few of them confused. The guy who writes the monologues and the guy who’s nice to Mindy Kaling? Not the same guy apparently! It took me until about two thirds through the movie to realize that, so like with Booksmart you’re gonna want to put faces to names right away; though I don’t think this movie is nearly as rewarding for putting in that extra effort as the guys are just kinda… alright. We don’t get much into their personal lives and the whole premise is that they’re just coasting on their jobs so there isn’t much to grab onto here aside from Mindy Kaling and Emma Thompson for most of the movie.
There are a few more things to talk about in this movie like John Lithgow who is phenomenal whenever he shows up and even Ike Barinholtz who makes the ballsy decision to intentionally play a BAD COMEDIAN in this, but overall this is a very pleasant surprise that I had quite a bit of fun in. It’s not one of the best because I think it never really tries for the BIG moments like say Booksmart did, but it’s still something I would definitely recommend checking out if you have the chance. However, this is also one of those Amazon movies, so chances are it’ll be on their streaming service before you get a chance to find a theater that’s actually playing this. With Booksmart it was at least a movie with a lot of up and coming talent so I felt that extra bit of motivation to support it, but with this… yeah, it’s a perfect movie to get to in your own time. Like basically every late night show out there, it’ll be there when you’re in the mood for it and you won’t feel like you missed out by waiting!