KVIFF 2019 Review: Mindy Kaling, Emma Thompson make it an appealing ‘Late Night’
Emma Thompson stars as a late night talk show host being pushed aside by younger contemporaries in director Nisha Ganatra’s Late Night, the closing night film at this year’s Karlovy Vary International Film Festival which has now entered general release in Czech cinemas.
It should come as a surprise to no one that Katherine Newbury’s literate late night show isn’t exactly pulling in the viewers, but there’s no real-life equivalent: in a genre dominated by the likes of Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, and James Corden, there hasn’t been a female host since Joan Rivers very briefly had a show in the 80s, and articulate refinement went of the air with Dick Cavett.
So no, Thompson’s Newbury isn’t dominating the ratings with a guest list that includes authors, artists, and activists. And when the studio tries to shake things up with a YouTube star, Katharine can’t resist talking down to her, creating an instant viral backlash.
Newbury also treats her writers like garbage (too busy to learn their names, she instead assigns each a number) and even does wrong by her husband, played by John Lithgow in a sensitive appearance; the Lithgow character, a retired professor suffering from Parkinson’s, might have been an afterthought but Late Night gives him a pair of genuinely moving scenes.
While the acid-tongued Katharine she may not exactly be a likable character, the always-appealing Thompson at least makes her interesting, and a smart script by Mindy Kaling adds multiple layers to what might have otherwise been a one-note horrible boss.
Better yet is Kaling herself as Molly Patel, the new “minority hire” with zero experience to a writer’s room full of white, male comedians. Those include characters played by Max Casella, Hugh Dancy, Reid Scott and others - - who aren’t generic white dude villains, but multi-layered characters with good and bad traits.
Kaling’s storyline here - both as the lone female in the writers’ room who struggles for her voice to be heard, and as the new recruit aiming to please and learning on the ropes - ends up being far more compelling than Thompson’s talk show host narrative, to which it often takes a back seat.
Late Night is fun, charming, and genuinely affecting, especially when it sticks to Kaling’s character and her journey through the writers’ room and into Newbury’s heart.
But while we can sympathize with the Newbury character, I think the film asks too much from its audience to have us actively rooting for her; climactic scenes in which she wins over TV audiences, media critics, and even the testy network head (Amy Ryan) with an impromptu speech don’t exactly ring true.
At the beginning of Late Night, you might wonder how this lofty late night show managed to get on the air in the first place given the state of the industry; after the events of the movie, you might be left wondering who’s still watching it, anyway.