One can stretch credibility standards when it comes to comedy, and especially when there is a highly entertaining performance by Emma Thompson, as is the case in “Late Night,” directed by Nisha Ganatra. There are other attributes as well, including the focus on a woman night show host instead of the male monopoly, and also a likable turn by Mindy Kaling as a newcomer who helps the star become more affable in a dramatic comeback.
It is mainly Thompson’s spotlight in the role of Katherine Newbury, who for many years has been a TV late night powerhouse in competition with well-known men. However, her show has been getting stale, resulting in lower ratings, and Caroline Morton, the woman head of the network, sternly played by Amy Ryan, gives her notice that she will be replaced. Since the show is Newbury’s life, it is crisis time and Newbury has to fight to retain her spot.
The screenplay, written by Kaling, while including much humor, strains to provide emotional redemption for Newbury, who has been acting like a controlling bitch with her writing team and just about everyone else. She doesn’t even know that one of her writers died a few years ago. The film takes us into the writer’s room operation, with a group a far cry from the kind of legendary writers of earlier days (Mel Brooks, Neil Simon etc.) Those depicted here are not an especially creative lot and operate mostly in competitive self-interest.
When the urgent need arises to add a woman writer, the inexperienced Molly Patel, of Indian ethnicity, is given the job, which is highly unlikely in view of her being a novice. Of course, she has problems integrating into the condescending group of male writers. But Kaling makes her a principled, amusing (she does standup comedy on the side) and endearing character.
Although she and Newbury clash at first, Newbury learns to listen to her sage advice, which leads to Newbury’s transformation into a host her audience begins to adore again. Thompson is excellent throughout and is eminently enjoyable to watch. But the screenplay that tries to balance comedy with sentimentality is contrived hokum. But at least it delivers a blow in behalf of women. There is also side story involving Newbury’s husband, Walter, played warmly by John Lithgow, who is ill and probably not long for this world. He and his wife are devoted to each other, but, spoiler alert, both the marriage and Newbury’s status are rocked by a scandal that complicates everything. “Late Night” has a screenplay that knows no limits.
As I missed the press screenings, I saw the film on opening day and found the large theater packed at an afternoon showing. The audience seemed to embrace “Late Night,” and at the end I asked a woman sitting next to me what made her want to attend. She said she was looking for a comedy and all of the advertising hype on TV made the film look promising. Whatever drew others as well, indications are that “Late Night” could turn out to be popular, with credibility issues falling by the wayside. An Amazon Studios release. Reviewed June 8, 2019.