Late Night is as timely and vital as it is plastic and condescending

The role of women in TV and a controversial abortion joke drive Nisha Ganatra’s film, which stars Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling.

It’s extremely difficult to make a film about someone brilliant, acerbic, witty, caustic, beloved and iconic when they’ve existed; it’s doubly hard to invent that person fully, especially if you’re then going to insert them into a world that otherwise looks just like ours. In the same way that writing a song that changes the world for the purposes of a movie about a fictional musician is practically impossible, Nisha Ganatra’s Late Night sets itself up with an impossible task. It needs to make us believe in a talk show host that’s been on TV for nearly three decades is an uptight PBS-level bore and it needs to make us believe that a joke that basically boils down to “guys who want to ban abortion are also the guys who can’t get laid” would rock the foundation of late night TV. Though it’s filled with good intentions and timely in its message, Late Night is thunderously out-of-touch and didactic in the methods it achieves to put these across.

Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling) works as a supervisor at a chemical plant where she’s considered the funny one. When she wins a writing contest that would let you meet an executive from the company, she opts to meet the CEO of the company that also owns the television channel that runs Katherine Newbury’s (Emma Thompson) talk-show. That’s how she gets an interview with Newbury’s lackey/producer (Denis O’Hare); she lands a spot on the writing staff of the show because Newbury, who’s on the verge of cancellation, requires that her staff hire a woman — any woman. Molly’s lack of experience is greeted very aggressively by the all-white, all-male writers’ room, who basically act like she’s not there at all. Slowly but surely, Molly brings in her particular outside perspective to the show and forges some kind of bond with Newbury, an extreme perfectionist and icy intellectual who fears losing her show because she’s never really done anything in her adult life but host it.

Late Night is about a lot of things, but fundamentally a lot of it focuses on the role of women in the television landscape. This isn’t much of a stretch: Kaling (who wrote the screenplay and clearly feels a personal connection to the material) has been a writer and producer on television shows for most of her career (starting at a time when a woman of colour on staff on a network sitcom was as likely as staffing an actual unicorn), so you would think that she knows what she’s talking about. And yet everything about Late Night is so protracted and simplified that it begins to resemble a Twitter thread posted in the middle of the night by someone with endless truth bombs to drop but only so many characters available with which to drop them. The majority of Molly’s workplace interactions essentially boil down to strawman arguments in which a situation is presented then immediately defused in didactic terms. There are long stretches that play like a particularly earnest industrial film designed to teach late-night TV writers about the perils of privilege.

The other aspect of Late Night concerns Emma Thompson’s character. Too often, these kinds of characters are reduced to stereotypes — both positive and negative — but the film is admirably nuanced about what spending your life in the limelight and the cultural elite does to a person. There’s certainly an irony to the fact that the figure of Katherine Newbury — a female comedian turned talk show host for three decades — has no real analogue in the real world, but there’s nevertheless something fascinating about the disconnect between how she navigates the world and how the world really is. Some of the best scenes in the film happen between Thompson and John Lithgow, who plays her husband, a world-famous pianist who has retired from the limelight due to a Parkinson’s diagnosis. In those few scenes, the actors manage to create fully fleshed-out, lived-in characters — a far cry from the motley crew of doofuses being lectured to in the writers’ room.

I don’t know exactly what it is that bothers me so much about Late Night. In many respects, it’s fine — fine in the way most romcoms are in a light, airy, entirely watchable manner. But there’s something about it that I find strangely condescending and perplexing. Maybe it’s the way that its far-fetched premise is brought forth, where the character of Molly seems to have been plucked out of thin air for the sole purpose of making points and giving lessons; she never feels anything other than a plastic audience surrogate, a character designed to dole out knowledge and guide audiences through an entirely unfamiliar world.

Maybe it’s that the whole thing feels plastic and unconvincing, right down to the basic level of the jokes that cause viral sensations and the general weakness of its satire. (Newbury first experiences viral shaming when she’s told off by a millennial YouTube star famous for smelling her dog’s ass; she then gets back into the public’s good graces when she tells the blonde star of a vampire show for teens that her character is reminiscent of Tess of the D’Ubervilles, to which the actress bursts into tears and asks for a hug.)

Either way, this is a movie about a pressing and vital issue of our time given a bizarre, corny, unstuck-in-time treatment that only serves to highlight how much we need a movie that tackles the things Late Night tackles — just one that does it better than this. ■

Late Night opens in theatres on Friday, June 14. Watch the trailer here: