Late Night is, well, occasionally diverting. Much of the promotion for the film has focused on the fact that current star Mindy Kaling wrote this specifically for legendary actress Emma Thompson, as if that fact had value in and of itself. What does have value is that Thompson actually made the film, and generally helps to make the film come as alive as it ever does.
The film is a updated version of The Devil Wears Prada set in television land. Thompson in the Streep role plays a late-night talk show host resting on her laurels who has been losing viewers steadily over the last decade. When she decides she must have a female writer on her all-male writing staff to re-engage her audience, lucky Mindy Kaling, who has just applied for a job on her team, gets hired. Kaling wrote the script, and it features many of her patented quips that tend to focus on the snarky, and which often elevate a scene by one last quick and funny phrase just when you think the scene has ended. The plot is predictable and threadbare, however, and except for one slight surprise (if you’re not paying close attention), you can see every turn coming a mile away.
There is also something of a tension between the screenplay and the direction. Director Nisha Ganatra, a filmmaker best known for her work in television, often seems to direct at a pace that is slower and therefore at odds with the verbal rhythms of the screenplay, particularly the snappy dialogue. Scenes are sometimes too slowly paced or go on for too long, and Kaling’s rhythms are sacrificed. (Kaling’s scene with a possible romantic interest who is clearly already “busy” is embarrassing not so for the “oops, I made a goof coming here” plot point as for how long it takes our supposedly sharp lead to get a clue.)
Thompson is a very good actress, yet not quite in the league of the “can’t do anything wrong British actresses” like Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, and Maggie Smith. She almost nails the character, yet you can see her acting in the more outlandish and dramatic moments that don’t quite seem to come from her center. As an actress, Kaling is decent, and her moments of sincerity and earnestness—which are comically mocked by Thompson’s character—are well played and believable. Her range is limited, but the film doesn’t give her anything to do that is beyond her. What is beyond belief is her storyline and her character’s developing closeness with a powerful late-night host. This is supposed to be based on Kaling’s experiences as the “token diversity hire” on “The Office,” but the credibility of the basic plot and several scenes stretches thinner and thinner as the film proceeds.
John Lithgow is credited as being in the film, but he’s alongside the film rather than in it, as if all his scenes were done off-line and at a different time. He doesn’t have to work particularly hard in the film, but the ways his scenes were filmed and cut in separate him even further than how the story presents him. Hugh Dancy (spoiler alert) as the office Romeo and cad is generally accepted due to the actor’s skill and personal charm, but the film demands that he function more as a plot point than a character at times, and the film is the weaker for it.
Probably the best male performance is by Tony winner Denis O’Hare, who brings a warmth and world-weariness to his role on the team that helps keep the film grounded and Thompson’s character from occasionally flying off the frame.
What the film is actually trying to say or portray isn’t always apparent, and actually is quite incomprehensible at times. Is this a story of success through hard work—when her big break is nearly beyond belief? Is it a sly take on Emma Thompson trying to gain younger viewers by pairing herself with Mindy Kaling? (I personally vote no on that, but the similarities are unnerving.) Is this an old-fashioned feminist and/or racial statement about the imbalance of power between white men and women, especially women of color? Or is this a simple success story about a hard-working, clever minority woman with a little romance thrown in that taps on all these issues without really digging too deeply into any of them? (I vote yes on that one.)
While the journey that Kaling’s character takes is not always believable but is always predictable, Thompson’s character apparently needs to get out of her rut, get real, and get woke. Unfortunately for the viewer and the film’s grosses, the supposed brave and breakout moment comes with a musty political stab and a plug for a particular “health” association that destroys young human life and often sells their body parts. (Did I just write that?) It’s divisive and is a classic example of Hollywood playing to itself. There are going to be many wondering how and why this film bombed. There is plenty to look at, but one might at least begin here.
The other scene is Thompson’s character’s “come clean” speech, which is supposed to be brave (again) and revelatory, and which supposedly resurrects her wounded career. It seems at first like it might make sense, and then ultimately doesn’t, and the rousing standing O it receives feels forced, to say the least. Then the last scene is what supposedly occurs in her writing and other staff after a year–an improbable collection of candidates that look like a Benneton ad of 10 years ago or a group hired simply for their contribution to someone’s idea of diversity.
In all, the film succeeds best as a vehicle for Kaling’s varied talents and a demonstration of the skills of one of our better supporting actors (O’Hare). Story-wise and message-wise, however, it feels easily predictable and oh, so yesterday.