ALEXANDRIA,VA-When a past primetime, late night show host discovers her longtime career and marriage are on the rocks, she finds an unlikely advocate in a novice comedy writer who was hired on a fluke. This unexpected pairing delivers a smart script with a lot of laugh-out-loud moments predicated on an inversion of the underlying #MeToo/Year of the Woman messaging.
In a role-reversal performance worthy of the Bard, Emma Thompson as erstwhile comedienne and talk show host Katherine Newbury stands up to the boys club of network television.
Enter stage right, Mindy Kaling (Kelly on “The Office”) as Molly Patel, a chemical factory worker who landed “bass-ackward” as a diversity hire on the all-male writing team for the now lackluster show.
Directed by Nisha Ganatra from a screenplay written by Ms. Kaling, with a production crew equally female, the empowerment theme rings loud and clear. There’s no overt soapbox finger wagging or proselytizing the woes of women in the workforce. The script stages women upon women, embattled by their own discriminatory and sexist stereotyping.
Katherine loathes women. The female network executive played by Amy Ryan despises Katherine. The social media sensation Mimi Mismatch, brought on the show for the new, progressive format, is reduced to tears when subjected to a modicum of meanness by Katherine’s condescending, acerbic wit.
A stellar supporting cast helps to carry Late Night through some almost unnoticeable lags and missteps. John Lithgow plays Katherine’s gifted, once-famous husband, who stepped out of the limelight due to a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. With his usual aplomb, he steals every scene fortunate enough to include him. Veteran character actor Denis O’Hareportrays the beleaguered senior, yet not entitled, staff writer Brad with exquisite control and poignant angst.
A delightful addition to the supporting character cast is Reid Scott as head monologue writer Tom Campbell. We expect the consummate office jerk he portrayed as Dan Egan for seven seasons on Veep. At first he doesn’t disappoint, but Tom’s transformation by the end is one of the most gratifying performances in the film.
Late Night is distributed by Amazon Studios. On the heels of the critical success of Netflix’s award-winning Roma, movie buffs can expect a slew of alternative studio releases. Even Apple has films in the pipeline. Dramedies and rom-coms don’t often post big numbers. They are relatively low budget. Metacritic-type scores reflect a more niche audience. Ignore them.
Films like Late Night rely on a solid script and a strong cast. Mindy Kaling’s first feature film effort doesn’t disappoint. Late Night was a hit at Sundance this year, closing a record $13 million deal for U.S. distribution rights. It’s no small coincidence that Amazon Studios has a woman chief at the helm, former NBC Entertainment President Jennifer Salke, who took over for ousted studio head Roy Price.
The film’s focus on run-of-the-mill sexism and inclusion in the workplace themes isn’t slapstick and sexy. It’s not a 9 to 5 and Working Girl reboot. Kaling’s twists pack a punch. She wrote the role of Katherine Newbury with Emma Thompson in mind. Hard to imagine a performance upstaging Dame Emma Thompson (who in her more vulnerable scenes calls to mind the plaintive, mild-mannered wife of an unfaithful Alan Rickman in Love Actually) yet Mindy manages to deftly complement, if not now and then upstage, one of the most acclaimed British actresses of all time.
Some white men may not get it. Much of hard-working middle America probably won’t hand over two hours’ pay to be schooled about inequality in the highly paid media workforce. New Yorkers sometimes forget that the world doesn’t actually perish west of the Hudson. Had the film ended without kowtowing to the cliché Hollywood happy ending, as viewers were for a brief shining moment lead to imagine, it might have been perfect. Nonetheless Late Night makes a great date night diversion.
Late Night is rated R for language and mature subject matter. It runs 1hr 42m.