Premise: A late night talk show host suspects that she may soon lose her long-running show.
Writer/star Mindy Kaling and director Nisha Ganatra’s “boss from hell” movie about an underdog in late night TV is plagued by underutilized supporting characters, underdeveloped subplots, and a borderline unlikable co-lead character. Late Night‘s saving grace is a strong performance by Emma Thompson who, despite her character being nearly irredeemably obnoxious, is served well enough by a script that misuses most of the other characters and subplots.
Even with a performance I liked and the clearest character arc in the movie, Emma Thompson’s Katherine Newbury is still a tough pill to swallow. She’s flagrantly abusive to her employees and incapable of facing the truth about her show. She gets called out for these character flaws, but when it happens it feels like the movie is simply confirming what it’s led the audience to believe: Katherine is just plain unlikable. This makes her growth throughout the movie extremely difficult to buy into, with any chance of being irredeemable a massive uphill battle.
Yet, Emma Thompson gives Katherine’s biting disinterest in people and willingness to fire anyone on the spot a tenderness alongside the tenacity that helps make her less of a stereotype. The movie gives her a husband with Parkinson’s (played by John Lithgow) to presumably make her more sympathetic. Surprisingly enough, it’s Thompson’s grasp of the character in quiet moments between tongue lashings at subordinates that keep her from being irredeemably wicked.
However, the issue with Late Night‘s hard to please boss is really just the byproduct of a trope that’s growing increasingly tired in movies and TV. Media representing abusive and toxic work environments as if suffering through them is what’s needed for success feels so played out and uninspired to me, no matter what the lesson being doled out is in the finished product. For the record, the lesson in Late Night is apparently if you work hard, sacrifice your happiness, and exercise an extreme amount of patience all for a legend in your field, there’s a good chance she may decide to call you by your actual name at work instead of referring to you as a number she’s assigned to you.
Even more maddening is when you consider that the movie has set up Katherine Newbury as a comedian so on the decline that she’s on the verge of being replaced. So the employees of this horrid boss are working under these conditions at a job that’s maybe at the bottom of the barrel in their field. Maybe that’s not fair, but the movie itself doesn’t really give the audience the impression that it’s difficult to work as a writer in late night TV. Other than length of service and complacency, the movie doesn’t go to any lengths to explain why the show is the writers’ only options. Nor does it (or anyone) seem to care about the writers that get immediately discarded by a fire-happy Katherine.
Broad concept issues aside, the supporting actors aren’t given much to work with in Late Night. The writers’ room characters are all pretty uninspired, despite having talent like Paul Walter Hauser and John Early in the cast. Hugh Dancy, in particular, is stifled with a pretty dull romantic subplot that feels really out of place in the greater scope of the movie. When the time bomb of that subplot goes off, there’s not much in the way of resolution for his character (good or bad) either. Reid Scott’s character is somewhat cartoonishly insecure and threatened by change. This wouldn’t be a bad character beat, but the movie doesn’t give it the proper attention. It’s not until later in the movie that his purpose in the plot is made clear and it just feels hollow and uninspired.
Mindy Kaling plays Molly as naive and unsure of herself and it works pretty well. The issue is with the script (written by Kaling) and its hesitance to really explore the social topics with which the movie flirts. The idea of Molly being a “diversity hire” in an all-male writers’ room is used as tension building for her and her coworkers early on but there’s no real release valve for it. Maybe that’s the intention, but like most other plot threads in the movie, it just feels undercooked. There’s also a sense of laziness in the way the movie establishes her background and the fish out of water aspect to her character. We’re told about her previous job, her lack of experience, and her living situation. But it doesn’t serve any real purpose or play into her character growth in any way other than sporadic plot-driven moments.
Ike Barinholtz’s character represents the young comedian threat to Katherine’s career. However, as much as I like Barinholtz as a performer, he’s given very little screen time and not a lot to work with. There’s a strong scene where he and Katherine engage in a sort of verbal power struggle that works great. But other than that one moment, Barinholtz feels a bit tossed aside.
Likewise, one of the more frustrating aspects of Late Night is the way it underuses Amy Ryan’s network president character, Caroline. There’s a wealth of conflict that her character harnesses, but it doesn’t get resolved in anywhere near a satisfactory way. Caroline is the person who is threatening to take Katherine’s show away and yet, the tension of that conflict doesn’t come through.
Instead, the movie uses a public shaming plot line as one of its big dramatic turns. This plot development comes across as a bit disconnected from the “network versus Katherine” plot line and comes across feeling like a poor attempt to make the movie feel more relevant. Unfortunately instead of bringing tension to a boiling point and bringing us into the final act, it slows the story down considerably and leaves us wanting.
Despite these many issues, I did still enjoy Emma Thompson’s performance in Late Night. It’s far from a perfect movie, but Thompson elevated it and with a difficult character that, against all odds, I felt sympathetic toward. I just wish just about everything else in the movie was on her same wavelength.