Late Night review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Late Night is the kind of comedy that feels like it has a lot to say but can’t always find the right words. So rather than dig a little deeper into presenting a picture of progressive ideals and understandings of social change, this picture merely puts in the bare minimum, reducing strife and plight to mere platitudes, one-liners, and hashtags. Sure, it’s well-meaning but how progressive can one film be when it rattles all of this stuff it's for without going that extra mile to show rather than tell.
This dilemma is faced by the film’s troubled late-night talk show host, Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson). She has been at this game a long time and she has grown stale with her show. Her priorities have clearly shifted from comedic bits to more personal and political issues, more keen to book guests she finds inspirational than promoting the latest movie. Her mind is more on issues than comedy considering the distance she puts between herself and her comedy writers. Realizing she may have a problem with women by keeping them away, she is encouraged to hire a woman for her writing staff. With her job on the line, she bitterly suggests they hire ANY woman for the position.
The lucky new writer is Molly (Mindy Kaling), a chemical plant worker with experience in writing that only goes so far as a company community board. An Indian woman, Katherine figures, would make a great diversity hire in contrast to her all-white male staff. Of course, she’ll be the one to kick some new energy into the program but not after being bashed by her co-writers, nearly being fired and being so down in the dumps she hides under her desk. Her writing at least seems like believable bits for a late-night talk show. One of Katherine’s new segments shifts towards the white savior trope being used in real life, where Katherine puts on the face of a pompous hero to hail a cab for a black guy. “I don’t have to go anywhere,” says the black guy. “It doesn’t matter,” says Katherine to the camera, “that’s what being a white savior is all about.”
That’s some decently funny commentary but it feels like a somewhat lacking bit. Consider how around the same time this film was coming out, talk show host Seth Meyers came up with a brilliant skit that perfectly parodied the melodrama and uneasy racism of white savior movies. That bit was far more well-written and it doesn’t help that Seth Meyers also appears in this film as himself and a host. As I said, this film wants to talk about stuff but feels like it’s always tip-toeing around bigger themes.
A big problem with Late Night is that characters put forth are somewhat cartoonish. For example, Katherine is being replaced by Daniel (Ike Barinholtz), a comedian who seems to specialize in sexist and mean-spirited comedy, where one of his bits involves pooping in shoes. Katherine feels insulted that such a man will be taking her position, fearing her legacy will be trounced by a cruder and louder voice. She also deals with somewhat cautious and confused men. If they’re not being fired as part of a backlash against the male workplace for a man asking for a raise with a new baby born, they’re either cracking jabs at Molly being a diversity hire or cautiously trying not to sound too political or offensive. There’s some more uncomfortable than funny when her co-workers try to apologize with #MeToo and #TransRights.
Late Night has all the right intentions but not a lot of the best lines to keep it moving. Where it shines best is in the performances where Emma Thompson plays a perfectly weary woman who has lost her ways in her strive for more. Mindy Kaling still has that chipper allure but she’s always had that spirit and mostly just turns on the auto-charm for this picture. John Lithgow is at least likable as Katherine’s somewhat devoted and troubled husband and Ike Barinholtz once more becomes the obnoxious villain as he always does. The film finds a few bits and pieces that work when it comes to comedy but whatever greater sense of social commentary it was trying to muster becomes lost in the punchline.