Growing up, I always had a soft spot for big budget American studio films. I subconsciously knew most lacked subtlety and sophistication, but man was it fun to watch Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase rappel down the side of a building in Foul Play or see Liza Minnelli, Gene Hackman and Burt Reynolds share the screen in the forgotten programmer Lucky Lady. That silly, loud American spirit meant something to me that the French New Wave or “Art Films” couldn’t provide. I have also always loved a good workplace comedy, and for me, nothing has ever come as close to perfection as Broadcast News. It was around that time, in fact, that my tastes started to change. I got tired of the formula, the laziness, and I started to crave jump cuts, handheld cameras, and brazen audacity. For me, the studios rarely made anything but forgettable eye candy. To a degree, they still do, with an occasional rare gem shining out from a giant turd pile.
It’s with this older, wiser, more cynical and, yes, perhaps bitter eye that I came to Late Night, a new workplace comedy written by and starring Mindy Kaling. Despite coming from a good place and pushing all of the correct “woke” buttons, it’s no Broadcast News. Hell, it’s no The Devil Wears Prada either, despite feeling like its distant cousin from your Great Uncle’s side of the family. Kaling, whose own career trajectory somewhat mirrors that of her character, plays Molly Patel, a worker in a chemical plant who finds herself as a diversity hire on an all-male writing staff for a network talk show. Its host, Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson), a volatile, cold boss, has coasted for such a long stretch that the network has now considered replacing her. Can she find the energy to save her show and maybe give her good qualities a chance to shine? Can Molly contribute to this and find her voice as a writer, and maybe, just maybe, find love? If you’ve seen big budget American studio films before (and full disclosure, this was an independent film, but it sure feels like a programmer), then I think you know the answer.
Along the way, we meet Molly’s co-workers, a ramshackle group of guys not unlike those portrayed on 30 Rock, and they include Hugh Dancy as her romantic interest, Reid Scott (Veep), unexpectedly showing a sweet side to his usually wiseass persona as Newbury’s chief monologue writer, Max Casella as the lifer, and the talented but underutilized John Early as the maybe gay writer who never gets a backstory, so we’ll just put a pin in that one for now. We also meet Newbury’s husband (John Lithgow), whose marital problems with her have a way of exposing her humanity, while also giving Lithgow some wonderful scenes.
All of this is to say that I had a good time watching this film, but make no mistake, it’s standard issue all the way. Director Nisha Ganatra (Chutney Popcorn), who has shown with her prior work that she has a great visual sensibility, does a bland, faceless but professional job here, because that’s all this movie aspires towards. It wants to entertain, nothing more, nothing less. On this front, we get a terrific performance from Thompson. You love to hate her when she calls her writers by numbers instead of their names, yet you root for her when she makes an effort to show up for someone. Kaling has written such a fantastic part for her, that it seems she forgot to do so for herself. Molly has a fun, adorable personality, especially when she puts her head on Katherine’s shoulder when the press start taking pictures of them, but her sudden rise as a writer and her feistiness didn’t draw me in as much as Thompson’s shoot for the moon style. Molly feels somewhat superfluous, making this more Katherine’s journey than her own. Still, it’s a classic three act structure and it does have something to say about busting through the patriarchy as a woman and as a person of color.
But….it lacks those singular moments. When I think of Broadcast News, I think of Holly Hunter unplugging her phone every day and crying. I think of Albert Brooks flop-sweating on live TV. I think of William Hurt faking tears to get a story. I think of Joan Cusack running with the tape. When I look back on Late Night, alas, I’m going to say, “I think I saw it. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. The best moment is depicted in the poster.” Ahhh, America.
GAY SCALE: For each review, I’ll rate the film on my 50 SHADES OF GAY SCALE to let you know how far it tips in our favor. Late Night gets a 1 out of 50, because the aforementioned John Early’s character feels kinda maybe coded as gay, but that’s the queerest thing you’re gonna find here. Call it Straight Night instead!
Late Night is in US and UK cinemas now.
By Glenn Gaylord