Late Night (2019)

“Be careful of showing who you are.”

For a largely light-hearted workplace comedy that’s determined to fight back against the longstanding male control of evening talk show hosts, Late Night airs its grievances without much credibility and even less nuance. Everything about this movie is forceful, on the nose, and it’s deeply ironic that a story so caught up by the possibilities of self reinvention and the power to rewrite one’s journey can come across as such a messy first draft. A rough script and shoddy filmmaking turn Late Night into the punchline of its own tedious, unfunny joke. Good performances can’t save this one from itself.

With more than 43 Primetime Emmy’s and 6,000 episodes in the bank, longstanding late night host Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) has fallen out of touch with the changing times, now delivering the same safe show and canned jokes night after night. Ratings have all but flat-lined and network president Caroline Morton (Amy Ryan) has groomed her eventual replacement to be Daniel Tennant (Ike Barinholtz), a comedian whose material consists mostly of bathroom humor. Katherine won’t hand off her show to a numb skull without a fight, and so she reluctantly tries her hand at accepting change, which includes a new woman in the stale, male dominated writer’s room.

There’s a lot to like about Late Night when it sticks to Thompson’s brassy performance as Newbury, trying to learn new tricks to retain relevance at a job she’s admittedly taken for granted. The same can’t be said for Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling, who also penned the script). Kaling brings spunk to the role, wearing her heart on her sleeve, and it’s clear the assumption that Molly is just a temporary diversity hire hits close to home, but the character’s arc exists outside the realm of possibility. Molly works at a chemical plant, has no experience as a comedian let alone as a writer, and yet she lands a coveted job that countless and more qualified candidates would have applied for. That the script rightfully rebukes nepotism in the workplace without realizing how preposterous and unmerited this pivotal point is feels hypocritical to say the least. You can’t wish your way into a dream job, but you can work your way there. In that regard, Late Night doesn’t seem to know that it’s a fairy tale.

For how progressive and forward thinking Late Night clearly wants to be, the plot gets sidetracked by rather meaningless, formulaic tangents that create drama without adding much of the necessary gravitas or authenticity. Unsurprisingly, the film is at its most refreshing when it goes in unexpected places, bringing a little bit a levity to the general stodginess of the picture; It’s your typical Nancy Meyers movie except it doesn’t know that it’d actually be better off as a Nancy Meyers movie. And while Thompson and Kaling make for a charming odd couple, Late Night can’t get past a mix of horrible, choppy film editing and a script in desperate need of a rewrite, not to mention a few laughs. I applaud the effort, but I think it’s safe to say this one wouldn’t make it to air.

“Your earnestness can be very hard to be around.”

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

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