Late Night stars Emma Thompson as Katherine Newbury, a veteran late-night talk show host who begins making changes to the style of her show when the network announces she will soon be replaced by a much younger and raunchier comedian. She is helped, and by helped I mean dragged kicking and screaming, into updating the format of the show after adding Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling, pulling triple-duty as writer and producer) to her writing staff. Molly has no previous comedy background other than telling jokes to her factory co-workers, but it has always been her dream to break into comedy writing. She gets the job because Thompson’s character decides to hire a woman to make her writing staff seem more diverse. Molly has to overcome both the boys club mentality of the writers’ room and Newbury’s reluctance to try new things in order to improve the show.
Given Kaling’s resume, I expected this script to be a lot more interesting, but I was struck by just how bland the final product is. The performances are excellent, but the humor is safe. There are opportunities everywhere for sharp observations about sexism and ageism, but every time the material starts to get edgy, Kaling retreats. That said, maybe I’m not the target audience. Alex and I were the youngest people in the theater by far, and everyone else laughed a lot more.
The first half of the film also seems to be setting up different conflicts than end up happening in the second half. There are few scenes in the first half that do not include at least one male member of the writing staff, and there are some interesting characters among them, but then the script either abruptly drops them from the story or uses them for the most conventional of plot points. I was looking forward to a critical examination of the patriarchal environment that exists in so many writers rooms, but any exploration of that here is surface level. This is even more bothersome because a handful of these guys say very sexist, racist or ageist things early on that are never addressed. We see the endpoint where they have accepted Molly as a member of their group, but it doesn’t feel earned.
The script had enough conflict to deal with between Katherine, Molly, the male writing staff and the network boss. Yet in the final hour, the conflict shifts as the result of a revelation about Katherine that threatens her marriage. It’s an abrupt but conventional twist that sadly takes screen time away from more interesting characters and dynamics that could have been explored. While doing the admirable thing by making sure her main characters had many dimensions, Kaling went too far and drained the script of energy and ignored its more compelling aspects. This is a film that never seems certain of what it wants to focus on or say. The ending is rushed and also conventional. Spoiler warning, the network boss has a change of heart after Newbury gives a contrite on-air speech.
I realize all I’ve done is complain. The truth is I certainly didn’t hate Late Night. It’s watchable and has some fun moments, but is also instantly forgettable. It’s a lot like Jay Leno, and I was expecting Samantha Bee.