“Late Night,” from director Nisha Ganatra (“Transparent”), turns a lens on the world of talk shows. Though it boasts a solid cast with the talents of Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling (who wrote the screenplay), the amiable narrative feels manufactured and serialized, as if from television. Thompson’s character and Kaling’s one liners are the best aspects of the film.
Molly (Kaling) is a part-time comic who yearns for more. She gets a meeting with a taciturn agent Brad (Dennis O’Hare). After brief questioning, Molly is hired because the stale show needs a new voice. Katherine Newberry (Emma Thompson) is an acidic diva of late night TV who is resistant to change. She is curt, cold and hostile, much like Miranda from “The Devil Wears Prada.”
Molly hurriedly walks into the office on her first day. Right on the comedic cue, she is late. Katherine is appropriately dismissive. Molly sits on a trash can.
As the new hire, Molly ventures her opinion and gets ridiculed by the pompous all male staff. One veteran writer Charlie (Hugh Dancy) likes her quirkiness and encourages her in more ways than one, but Molly becomes turned off when Charlie is revealed to be already dating. Regardless, Molly persists in her job, writing the best jokes, attracting the prickly attention of Katherine.
Walter (John Lithgow) is Katherine’s ailing husband who tinkles on the piano.
Kaling has charm as the sharp neophyte who bluntly delivers truth to every arrogance, and Thompson is ice to perfection as the brusque queen with no tolerance for second billing.
The main drawback of the film is that it feels pre-made, formed with concepts from previous films. Thompson is appropriately harsh ala Meryl Streep in the aforementioned film, while Kaling is expectedly flustered. She is always at the ready with the proper repartee. The horde of writers snicker and smirk. There is little surprise to raise it to an important story. All feels stuck in second gear, filled in with the expected reckoning. The one liners, although humorous, feel composed for “30 Rock.”
There is whimsy in Kaling’s delivery and Thompson gives fine intensity to the role, especially when Katherine is down and almost out, but overall the film feels forced with its too easy “Do Good” message.
The film is self-conscious in its covering gender bias and #METOO. Each outcome is routine without intrigue or genuine introspection and every conflict feels sliced into digestible bits with little to challenge or provoke.
Instead of sterner stuff, “Late Night” is a safe and breezy clock-work concoction of Cinderella versus Scrooge with some topical trappings.
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