Late Night, released in 2019, follows the story of a has-been late night talk show host, the only woman in the business, and the way the diversity hiring of a young Indian-American woman changes the culture of her increasingly unfunny show. Mindy Kaling, whom you might recognize from The Office, plays Molly Patel, while Emma Thompson stars alongside her as the once-great Katherine Newberry. Kaling also wrote and produces the film, which was directed by Nisha Ganatra. John Lithgow is the next most noteworthy cast member.
I was intrigued by the idea of this film long before I saw it. It had been on the list for a while after I saw Emma Thompson doing the rounds on the actual late-night shows to promote it. Workplace dramas have always been in favour with me (for anyone who prays at Aaron Sorkin’s shrine, it would pretty much have to be), and the premise of these characters was very interesting. It ticked all the boxes that it needed to give me a positive predisposition.
I think I was altogether slightly underwhelmed. Late Night is a fantastic concept and a look into an exciting and interesting environment which we don’t often see in entertainment. It’s even supported by a laundry list of very compelling characters on paper. My issues, however, stemmed predominantly from the film’s tendency to tell me things about characters and situation, instead of showing me much of anything. One of the hallmarks of really good storytelling is the ability to communicate something without just saying it. It’s a little unfortunate that with characters that are as outwardly interesting as these, they couldn’t find a way to provide evidence for much of any of their development. Molly (Kaling), is praised many times throughout the film for her comedic talent, a talent that we never actually see showcased very much or to a large extent. The few bits that we do see her write/perform aren’t bad, but nowhere near the level of obvious comedic intelligence that someone familiar with The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel would recognize. Emma Thompson’s portrayal of Katherine Newbury, undeniably the most interesting character among a few very good ones, is the strongest point of the film, in spite of a couple instances of poor writing.
Well-conceived characters was a pattern in this film, but a lot of the development was, again, a lot of tell-not-show. Almost every character, down to the Katherine’s original writing staff, had enough inherent depth about them to keep it interesting, but dynamics were developed too quickly and without a lot of evidence. The change that comes over the workplace culture of the show isn’t weighted in a satisfying way, it feels like it goes from one extreme (where writers haven’t even met Katherine, which is completely insane) to them sitting on her desk and pitching pirate bits. The actual things that happen, plot-wise and with character dynamics, just isn’t supported by narrative evidence, which would’ve made for such a satisfying experience! Especially considering the inherent quality of the characters.
The comedy within the film is pretty strong overall. If the funny factor was lacking from any direction, it was the quality of the actual stand-up. I wouldn’t classify it as bad or poor, it just didn’t come close enough to my expectations, having great regard for Mindy Kaling as a comedic actor and writer. I mentioned Ms. Maisel earlier, and it’s entirely possible that using it as a yard stick isn’t fair to Late Night, but it is my lens as an audience member and it’s hard to take it away. The writing otherwise was more or less decent, with the possible exception of the ‘climax’ moment, the first monologue to her audience after the revelations about her affair, was a little underwhelming. I appreciate some lines and motifs, her catchphrase is an example of a motif which I really like, but the monologue otherwise was missing something soaring and hopeful.
All in all, this was an alright film. It had incredible potential, and it maintained extremely interesting characters and premise to the absolute last. Some of the developmental execution, however, left a lot to be desired, and I walked away from it feeling rather underwhelmed. Someone who deserves a mention, whom I haven’t yet, was John Lithgow, who did a remarkably good job with what little he had to do. Emma Thompson’s work, more notably, deserves a second mention, and Mindy Kaling has done a hell of a job with the conceptual development of the plot and the characters. Ultimately, however, Late Night chose to tell us about its characters rather than show us.
– Aman Datta
Aman’s Score – 70/100 Aryamaan’s Score –