'Late Night': Film Review | Sundance 2019

An amusing conventional comedy about two women's struggles in late night TV.

Emma Thompson stars as a fading late-night host and Mindy Kaling plays her new writers room hire in Nisha Ganatra's comedy.

Diverting and for the most part agreeably amusing, Late Night is about as mainstream and conventional a movie as could be made right now about the timely issues of women and minorities finding equal footing in the workplace. That the industry undergoing change in this instance is late-night television automatically makes it funnier and more glamorous than might be the case if it were the insurance industry under scrutiny, and the pairing of Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling gives the peppy film two distinct audiences to draw upon for what could be a fairly popular attraction.

Written by Kaling, the pic was helmed by Nisha Ganatra, who has directed on GirlsTransparent, Mr. Robot and The Mindy Project, among other shows. It presumably knows whereof it speaks when it comes to TV comedy, and the reality at the outset is that the writers room of the long-running chat show Tonight With Katherine Newbury needs a little diversification, as it's stocked with nothing but white guys, whose other common trait appears to be deeply ingrained disgruntledness.

The status quo suits Katherine (Emma Thompson, in good snappy form) just fine, but she relents to the demand for greater inclusivity by hiring Molly (Kaling), who is of Indian descent. The imperious, British-born host couldn’t be more dismissive of her, but of greater concern to the network is that her ratings have been down and younger audiences are going elsewhere for their comedy and chat — namely, to social media. At 56, Katherine’s days — or, more worrisomely, nights — look to be numbered, with a hot young shock jock (Ike Barinholtz) apparently waiting in the wings.

Much of the writers room banter isn’t quite as amusing as you’d want or expect, and the lack of variety among the guys, in their humor and attitudes, somewhat shortchanges these scenes; if Katherine’s ratings really are down, maybe it shouldn’t be her who gets canned.

Wrestling with her dilemma, Katherine invites a young YouTube sensation on her show, with disastrous results, but it does kick-start her into taking her dilemma seriously. But there’s worse, when an indiscretion from her past comes to light, triggering a crisis with her older husband (John Lithgow), who has Parkinson’s disease.

Ultimately, though, having her back to the wall inspires Katherine to take the necessary leaps to, if not reinvent herself, at least get out and get a grip on a changing world. As scripted, it all seems a tad easy, a quick trip to a downtown comedy club being all she needs to grow new comic plumage. It’s all too neatly resolved, feeling more like breezy television comedy than a knotty real-life problem that might leave bruised egos and hurt feelings.

Still, the result is broadly amusing, and the fact that it speaks in a timely way about much-discussed issues of diversity and balance in the workplace, in this instance specifically show business, will attract the spotlight and provoke discussion that will give the film a special profile.

Thompson carries the pic with customary flair, and it’s good to see her in a real leading role again in a popularly aimed film. Having been generous to her co-star, Kaling the writer gives Kaling the actress considerably less to work with, but she has her moments, particularly in scenes of discomfort and awkwardness.

Production companies: 30West, Imperative Entertainment, Film Nation
Cast: Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, Max Casella, Hugh Dancy, John Lithgow, Denis O’Hare, Reid Scott, John Early, Ike Barinholtz, Amy Ryan
Director: Nisha Ganatra
Screenwriter: Mindy Kaling
Producers: Mindy Kaling, Howard Klein, Ben Browning, Jillian Apfelbaum
Executive producers: Alison Cohen, Milan Popelka, Micah Green, Daniel Steinman
Director of photography: Matthew Clark
Production designer: Elizabeth Jones
Costume designer: Mitchell Travers
Editors: Eleanor Infante, David Rogers
Music: Lesley Barber
Casting: Laura Rosenthal, Maribeth Fox
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)

102 minutes