Late Night falters for not realizing its full potential.
Historically, movies set in and around the world of comedy have a hard time connecting with mainstream audiences, but not because of these movies tendency towards inside baseball. It’s that for many of these stories to function, the depiction of comedy requires a universal baseline for what is and is not funny. If a scene, like a prominent one in the new Mindy Kaling vehicle Late Night, wherein long tenured comedy host Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) watches a set from her potential replacement, a blowhard played by Ike Barinholtz, needs the audience to know he’s an unfunny piece of shit, that means everyone has to agree that his particular brand of comedy sucks.
Unfortunately for Late Night and this subgenre as a whole, that’s not how comedy actually works. That scene in question works well enough because Barinholtz is unmatched at playing assholes and because Thompson can imperceptibly portray any emotion in the human spectrum with relative ease. But moments like that exist throughout the picture, where the audience needs someone on screen to represent True North as to which bits are good and which bits are bad, and the film itself doesn’t have consistent enough characters for that to always be the case.
The film begins as a particularly cloying variation of The Devil Wears Prada, with Thompson as a towering late night host past her prime who is as rude to her staff as she is revered by her peers. After being criticized for not having any women in her writer’s room, a staff full of barely funny white guys she seems to also despise, she brings in Molly Patel (Kaling), an inexperienced comedy writer who got the job after winning an essay contest at the chemical plant she works for. The first act is largely insufferable, overplaying all the beats from every movie where some rich and important person is a dick to everyone they know.
But the reason it doesn’t work so well to start is pretty simple: while the narrative functions efficiently from a structural standpoint, it comes at the expense of developing this cast, populated with talented performers. For the beginning of the runtime, no one really acts like a character or a real person. It isn’t until the half hour mark that Newbury feels like she has any complexity or that Molly becomes an actual character with strengths and weaknesses and not just an overdressed tulpa for Kaling’s shtick as a fish-out-of-water everywoman.
When the film moves away from that easy narrative and the boilerplate boss/protege relationship, it becomes an altogether different movie, one that dissects elements of television production without getting caught up in industry jargon or obscuring its themes in minutiae. At its best, it comes the closest to capturing the world of comedy since Judd Apatow’s fascinating failure Funny People and it does so in half the time and with absolutely none of that director’s irritating reliance on improvisation. There’s a really great run in the second act when the jokes are hitting and the character’s relationships are becoming more involved where it feels like a real triumph.
It’s just frustrating that it takes so long to get to that good stuff. The false starts at the outset could have been pruned or restructured so the film could have more time and space to really go for the jugular with the way it depicts privilege in comedy jobs, instead of repeatedly gesturing at how bad things are, while unintentionally recreating much the same paradigm. This is above all else a movie that can’t stop talking about how aggressively white and male comedy writing rooms can be, all while making no room in the narrative for Molly to have friends outside the job to provide some perspective from other voices.
It’s a movie that begins by handicapping characters for no reason. Why should the audience feel bad for Molly being treated as a random diversity hire when she 100% is a random diversity hire? Why should they sympathize with Newbury for her show tanking and her being replaced due to her own complacency and malice? They’re the kind of weird creative decisions that should have been massaged out in prior drafts before this script made it to screen.
But when the film is on, it’s so charming and genuinely lovable that it’s hard to keep quibbling about some of the finer details. Thompson and Kaling have strong chemistry, with the former being as reliably great as ever and the latter feeling more like a full throated performance than any other time in her career. The film works better when it gets into the guts of trying to improve Newbury’s show and providing more complexity in the relationships between the writers, rather than letting 70% of the cast just be cartoon cutouts of sexist oddballs.
And thank God Paul Feig had to drop out of directing, because Chutney Popcorn helmer Nisha Ganatra provides the movie with a distinct visual language and feel that is sorely lacking from most mainstream comedies. It’s nice to watch what is essentially a very smart airplane movie feel like it’s been carefully directed by someone who made real decisions and not the Funny or Die algorithm behind the camera for every other summer vehicle as of late.
Late Night falters for not realizing its full potential as a James L. Brooks-style dramedy, the kind that could stick around for consideration come awards season, but when all is said and done, it still punches above its weight as comedic counter-programming.