Courtesy of Amazon Studios
Directed by Nisha Ganatra and written by Mindy Kaling, the new comedy “Late Night” was one of the breakout sensations at Sundance this past year, prompting Amazon to shell out $13 million dollars for bragging rights and I’m sure it’ll find a good audience once it hits their streaming service in the coming months. After all, its driving force is a compelling one, giving Emma Thompson some of the best work she’s done in years playing Katherine Newbury, a late night talk show host whose in a bit of a rut. Trying (and failing) to appease a wider demographic and with her ratings hitting a ten year low, she needs a spark, otherwise she’s just a captain going down with a sinking ship.
Enter Mindy Kaling’s spunky Molly Patel, a chemical plant liaison who entered an essay contest and with no television experience gets a bid as one of Katherine’s head writers. Tossed in the ring with a crew of all male writers, and like a plot gimmick, Molly begins catching the attention of her peers and boss due to her unfiltered constructive criticism and savvy millennial knowledge.
“Late Night” is an obvious statement on women's equality in the workforce and all that works fine, except the filmmakers jam the message down our throats at least several times. In addition, there’s something off about a comedy movie trying to peddle comedy. Add to the fact Katherine only hires Molly because she was trying to prove a point to her co-workers (an undeveloped subplot sees Katherine accused of disliking women writers) and it all feels kind of sour and lacks focus.
To Kaling and Thompson’s credit, they work overtime exploring their relationship on screen, and “Late Night” is at its peak when these two are riffing off one another and trying to be trailblazers for their industry. Sadly, there’s not enough of those soothing, often hilarious, and touching moments - instead it would rather keep hitting the same notes about unethical workplace standards over and over.
Thompson should be in the awards conversation this year for her rare comedic turn, channeling all the greats from Johnny Carson to Jimmy Kimmel. But again, the film sends mixed signals; on one hand it wants to combat workplace stereotypes, but then it reinforces said stereotypes in the next scene.
Because of this, “Late Night” feels more like a sitcom than an actual movie, though with great supporting work from Hugh Dancy as Molly’s charming love interest and John Lithgow as Katherine’s ailing husband (among others) - the acting caliber is obviously elevated.
That doesn’t stop “Late Night” from serving up undercooked ingredients to its audience (a scandal pollutes the entire third act and it never clicks and there’s Ike Barinholtz playing a cocky comedian trying to take over Katherine’s show which is as annoying as it sounds). Yet perhaps the biggest head scratcher is how “Late Night” is pegged as a comedy - when in reality it’s much more casual than that. I found myself smirking instead of laughing out loud.