Monday 9 May 2022

Movie Review: Late Night (2019)

A workplace comedy, Late Night tackles a few serious issues with a light touch.

In New York, celebrated British personality Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) hosts a long-running late night television talk show. But like Katherine, the show is aging, losing ratings, and threatened with cancellation by network head Caroline Morton (Amy Ryan). Seeking a refresh, inexperienced but bubbly Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling) is hired as the only woman writer on the otherwise all-male, all-white writing team.

Despite her profile, Katherine does not enjoy publicity, and prefers the quiet company of her husband Walter (John Lithgow), who is suffering from Parkinson's disease. Molly has to overcome criticisms that she is just a diversity hire, while her fresh ideas inject new life into the show. But then a scandal hits, threatening Katherine's reputation and jeopardizing Molly's career prospects.

Written and co-produced by Kaling, Late Night seeks chuckles in the maze of office politics. Director Nisha Ganatra delivers undemanding entertainment in a compact 102 minute package mercifully devoid of bathroom-level humour and stock romances, but never threatens to transcend the mostly predictable material.

The narrative suffers from focus uncertainty. Both Katherine and Molly can claim to be the main character, but yet neither of them quite occupy the centre. And for most of the time, the relationship between the two women is terse and distant, so this is not a dynamic duo story either. Rather, two seperate arcs interact in relatively docile patterns, leaving a sense of diffused energy.

Kaling demonstrates courage in tackling, albeit sofly, a range of relevant issues. Aging, tokenism, double-standards, health declines, mistreatment of employees, and the dissipation of intellectual discourse all make their way into engaging dialogue exchanges. The workplace landmines are acknowledged with disarming frankness as obstacles to be navigated and overcome, rather than triggers for whining. Less successful is the portrayal of Katherine's team by a gaggle of uncharismatic male actors. They may be purposefully indistinguishable as a humour device, but nevertheless too much time is spent in a room full of too many men who don't register.

After a barely sketched-in scandal causes artificial ripples, the final act refuses to veer away from the safest middle course towards sappy endings for all. The emotional final speeches - Molly and Katherine take their turns, still unsure who is the lead - barely resonate. Late Night is good for a few easy smiles, but is well forgotten by morning.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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