LATE NIGHT. Starring: Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, Hugh Dancy, John Lithgow, Ike Barinholtz, and Amy Ryan. Directed by Nisha Ganatra. Rated M (Coarse language and sexual references). 102 min.
This fictional American drama-comedy is adapted from a screenplay written by Mindy Kaling who stars with Emma Thomson in the movie. It tells the story of a female host of a late-night talk show which is about to be axed, and who joins forces with a new writer to save her professional career.
Emma Thompson plays Katherine Newbury who is host of a late night TV comedy talk-show program, called “Tonight With Katherine Newbury”, which has dominated the popularity polls for years. Katherine’s office is lined with Emmy awards, and she is the longest-running female host of a primetime network, comedy talk-show.
Ill-tempered, arrogant, and authoritarian by nature, Katherine is informed by the network’s President, Caroline Morton (Amy Ryan), that her ratings are slipping and it is time to go. She is told that she has one season left, before she will be replaced by a younger host (Ike Barinholtz), who is male and has more provocative pulling power. Desperate to give her show a fresher appearance, and threatened by the slump in her ratings, Katherine hires Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling), an American-Indian woman, to give her comedy a different look. The hiring of Molly’s is against the wishes of Katherine’s writing group, who are all white males. Molly is the first female to penetrate Katherine’s team; nobody in the writers’ room wants Molly there; and Molly has to sit on an overturned trash-can at her first board meeting, because nobody gives her a chair.
One of Katherine’s writers, Charlie Fain (Hugh Dancy) leaks an email that reveals Katherine had an affair with him, after her husband, Walter (John Lithgow), was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Amidst a blaze of publicity, Katherine confronts her past on air and admits her affair to her TV audience in a forthright and honest way. After she fires Molly, for disagreeing with her, Katherine decides she now needs her, and invites her back. Molly is promoted to be a co-lead writer on Katherine’s new show, and with her help, Katherine’s program surges ahead in the ratings, which convinces the network’s President to change her mind about terminating Katherine.
Emma Thomson outclasses Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006), and delivers a power-house performance as the TV-host under stress. She delivers her one-liners lethally. Helped by a script, that has been written by Kaling, her witty asides are delivered with venom and ferocity, that cower her male staff. This is an earnest comedy with very sharp teeth, and Thompson delivers her lines stylishly with targeted grit.
Less so, the rest of the cast, especially when the film adopts the satirical stance of offering broad comment on the “Me too” movement. Soon after the film begins we see a male group of writers at the mercy of a formidable Chair (Katherine), and the film concludes with a much-softened Katherine whose board now has multiple women and men of mixed age, colour, and race, all interacting harmoniously together. Such a concluding comment is well worth making, but the film communicates its “Me too” messages obviously and unsubtly. One remembers the movie mostly for Emma Thomson’s delightfully acerbic performance.
At its core, this female-centric film, is a comedy about comedy, and delivers its witticisms sharply and intelligently, and it raises a large number of serious social issues as it unfolds. It tackles male power in the media; sexism, racism and ageism in the work-place; professionalism under stress; the practice of male and female power in the entertainment industry; and the difficulties of being a female comedian. On most of these issues, it wears its agenda thoughtfully, but a little heavily.
This is a good-natured comedy with bite. Both Katherine and Molly work in a sexist work culture at opposite ends of the power spectrum. They face-off on the issues differently, but the film manages to maintain its comic thrust through the movie in an enjoyable and entertaining way.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Released July 25th., 2019