by Ken Bakely
It shouldn’t be hard for us to love Nisha Ganatra’s Late Night. There are strong lead performances from Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling, a high-profile showbiz setting, and a smart sense of tone and placement. This is enough to give us some funny and sharp dialogue, alongside astute observations about its characters and how they relate to each other, but there’s something missing that keeps everything from coming together. Scenes happen, developments occur, mistakes are made, people react. But the actual substance we want – which would delve into the themes only briefly touched upon, allow the massive changes that have happened between the first scene and the last, and convey the feeling of the story as a journey instead of a sequence – is missing. The pace is so snappy that it sacrifices entire chunks of the movie’s foundation in exchange for its light and airy tone. As the film follows Molly Patel (Kaling), a young television writer who has gotten her big break writing for Katherine Newbury (Thompson), a veteran late night host whose unsympathetic and detached demeanor has only intensified amid sliding ratings, much is made of how Molly’s optimism clashes with Katherine’s cynicism, and how the former’s inexperience in the field is expected to minimize her status even further. Yet additional upheaval will change the writers’ room’s stuffy status quo, the show itself, and indeed, the lives of these individuals.
Late Night positions itself around the ideas of that change. It observes that Molly is the only non-white writer on the show, and besides Katherine herself, the only woman, and that this has harmed the perspective and outreach of the program. But these notes on the importance of representation, like so many of the timely things invoked by Kaling’s script, is often just an observation; a way to establish what needs to change without making it an important element of the proceedings to follow. The progression of Molly making an impact and reforming the show, while overcoming the dismissive and snide remarks of her coworkers, could be the singular angle for another movie, as could the difficulties encountered by the show that come to light later on. Together in one package, it’s a bit overstuffed and underbalanced, though this isn’t to denigrate the admirable work done by Ganatra in helming the material with a steady hand, nor the solid performances by Kaling and Thompson. While much praise has been rightly adorned to Thompson’s wide-range, vacillating interpretation of Katherine, which hits every emotional high and low, vulnerability and steeliness, without ever coming across as out of depth, her scenes with Kaling stand out for a reason, and that’s because they feature two performers who can adequately play off each other. In some other sense, though, the quality of what we see onscreen serves again as some disappointing reminder of what doesn’t hold up in respect to the movie’s structure. Everyone is good, but we keep wishing for more material that reflects the complicated, human dynamics that the performances deliver in the film’s finest moments.
There’s certainly an outstanding hope for movies and other stories about the entertainment industry, especially in the context of searching for greater diversity and dismantling old ideas and preconceptions of who can succeed in a given field. Late Night is hardly a bad place to start, but it’s just not as effective or succinct as it could have been. It’s always an entertaining enough effort, and never takes any missteps or oversights that are critically damaging or memorable, yet when even the good stuff seems to operate all at one, vaguely simplified level, that’s not all that memorable, either. Through its believably messy and engaging escalations of plot and conflict, strangely basic solutions seem to emerge. It’s then when it seems to resemble a well-written song with lyrics missing – just a few more well-placed words could bring so much together, add the meaning it keeps trying for, and present some deeply accomplished achievements. As it is, the movie feels lacking for all that it acknowledges in its philosophy and attempts in its execution. We keep returning to the ideas and possibilities of what could have been – what is demonstrated, as well – considering the story and the talent involved.