A late-night talk show host's world is turned upside down when she hires her first and only female staff writer. Originally intended to smooth over diversity concerns, her decision brings about unexpectedly hilarious consequences as the two women who are separated by culture and generation become united by their love of a biting punchline.
The trailer for this film was rather underwhelming, so there was no overwhelming urge that I must see the film. Nevertheless, an opportunity to view the film early was provided, and Emma Thompson is, of course, an acting legend, so I gave the film the benefit of the doubt. I emerged from the theatre feeling whelmed with what I had seen.
The apprehension towards the film actually came from the focus being on Emma Thompson (who comes across incredibly unlikeable in the trailer) and Mindy Kaling (who got on my nerves in the US version of The Office). As well as starring as one of the main protagonists in the film, Kaling also wrote the screenplay, which while an unoriginal story, had some fresh material within it.
Unoriginal, because Late Night follows the same premise as The Devil Wears Prada, with a young woman with big dreams landing a job at the prestigious business, and finds herself working alongside the unlikeable controlling woman in-charge, leaving her questioning her ability to survive without getting scorched. That is literally the synopsis of The Devil Wears Prada with the specific names or roles removed. So Late Night comes with a general story we have already recently seen on the big screen and this, unfortunately, makes the direction of the film incredibly predictable as it follows the expected tropes.
The film, therefore, relies on its tone to determine whether it succeeds or not. This is a comedy-drama (commonly referred to as a dromedy), and the film does well to balance these two elements out. Apart from the occasional piece of physical humour (most notably the scene of Kaling getting biffed in the face by a bag of trash in the trailer), the comedy derives from the personality traits of the characters and doesn't really rely on slapstick humour. This was a good choice as it lifts the comedy to a higher level creating a much more organic viewing where the characters are actually required for the comedy to occur (any person can get slapped in the face to get a laugh, but a young white male can't exactly joke about menopause).
As mentioned earlier, Emma Thompson's character is largely unlikeable, so Late Night is her attempt at a redemption arc. As far as the writing goes, Kaling does a good job of developing ire towards Thompson's character of Katherine Newbury. The audience has no trouble seeing that she has lost sight of her aims, and has gone from providing intelligent humour and respectable guests, to becoming a pretentious and inflated ego. As thus, we revel in the opportunity to see her getting taken down a peg or two. Where the writing is less effective is in choosing its timing for those traits to be fixed. Once the problems are made clear, Newbury carries on with the same behaviour for the sake of a few more jokes that they had lined up. Realistically, the full reveal of the overarching premise should have come after these jokes to make Newbury a bit more relatable.
In general, however, any personality changes among the cast are well transitioned and are brought on due to some well-grounded events that feel not only understandable but also come across as genuine. So the film is driven by the dramatic portions just as much as the comedic elements. On the dramatic side, we have John Lithgow, who plays Walter, the husband to Katherine Newbury, and who despite being present in very few scenes, is the linchpin of authenticity in the film. Every scene he was in was engaging and emotionally resonant. I would have loved to have had more of his character involved.
Mindy Kaling is okay in her role. She does play one of the weakest characters, who is constantly having to be pushed by the men in the film to carry on and persevere, and seemingly just as eager to engage in any potential love interests as if her role was written by a male screenwriter ten years ago. An interesting choice, but it did allow for her character to undergo her own development arc. The remainder of the cast, however, were one-dimensional characters, and largely unlikeable as well.
The two main areas that the film tried to keep the comedic focus on, was the idea of the "diversity hire" and the need for greater edginess and relevance in the talk show. These were the weaker aspects of the script, unfortunately. The "diversity hire" humour was a constantly recurring theme throughout the film, to diminishing returns each time. The talk show aspect was much more successful but also much more inconsistent. Despite a supposed push towards more political and edgy humour, apart from a couple of "white saviour" and abortion pieces, everything stays rather mainstream and soft-edged. It did admittedly get a giggle from time-to-time, and there were definitely others in the theatre that were laughing-out-loud throughout the film, so this is much more subjective.
Late Night is a satisfactory film that provides a satirical look behind the curtain of the late-night talk show circuit. It has some good messages to be said about diversity hires and the unequal gender roles in scandals, but as far as scathing social commentary and political humour, this film's attempt at a lioness is missing its teeth.
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