Sundance first look: in Late Night, Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling miss the joke

A floundering chat show host is saved by a quickwitted fan who steps in to modernise her patter, but the comedy set ups here are sadly beyond rescue.

Jordan Hoffman

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Emma Thompson as Katherine Newbury in Late Night

Emma Thompson as Katherine Newbury in Late Night

Emma Thompson is an international treasure, so any film that literally puts her under a spotlight is welcome. In Late Night she plays Katherine Newbury, a British comic coasting as a longtime host of a chat show. Her ratings have declined, her material is stale and the new head of the network (Amy Ryan) is itching to replace her with a crude, frathouse-ready boor. She’s still an icon, however, and somewhere in there are comic chops, if only someone would come along and sweep off the dust.

That person is Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling, also the screenwriter; the director is Nisha Ganatra), an admirer and comedy novice who, thanks to some preposterous plotting, ends up getting hired to the Newbury show’s writing staff. Her cohort are by-and-large ‘good guys’ but are all white and have little interest in this (as they cruelly put it) “diversity hire”. (Newbury is trying to prove a point to her producer that she doesn’t have a problem with women on staff.) But Patel’s plucky, youthful spirit gets people talking (and tweeting!) about the show again. Despite hating her at first, everyone, especially Newbury, soon realises just how essential Patel is as an individual and, by extension, that diversity is good for the workplace and television ratings.

Comedy is subjective. But freshness is not. We live in a post-The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel world right now, so that means if you are going to write about comedy writers, your writing has to absolutely sing. Kaling is a very funny performer, and her reaction shots are as good here in Late Night as they are on The Office. But her screenplay is quite poor. As an example, the first joke Molly Patel writes that gets her notice is something to the tune of: “Several Republicans in Congress have put forward a bill to restrict funding to Planned Parenthood. Isn’t it amazing that the ones most concerned about abortion are the ones who look like they never get laid?” Funny joke. And, conceptually, identical to one George Carlin told in 1981.

In a later monologue, in which the ‘new’ Newbury is to show that she can speak modernity’s tongue, she uses the phrase “spoiler alert!”

Late Night (2019)

Late Night (2019)

Late Night’s issues aren’t just old jokes, it’s old scenarios. You can smell the success montage coming a mile away (the writers reading good reviews and pumping their fists as they march down the hall), then there’s the awkward party at Katherine’s home, and the final showdown with the network head. These scenes are blandly staged and workmanlike. It’s unfortunate because Kaling is so very likeable and Thompson, as the cruel-but-sophisticated boss, dominates every scene, assigning her staff numbers instead of names to demean them. It’s all a little bit fun. But it should be a lot of fun.

I must report, however, that this movie killed at its Sundance premiere. Maybe blame it on the high altitude or the fact that it showed after long day’s programme of films about domestic abuse. It sold to Amazon for $13 million, so clearly someone feels confident about its business prospects. As a white male critic I am well aware that perhaps a film written and directed by women of colour may not resonate with me as much as with others, however much my instincts would like to protest such an accusation. But I don’t think nice characters and good intentions are enough to recommend a film. Late Night starts off with a comic who’s lost her mojo; it ends with the film telling you she’s got it back, but offers no hard evidence.

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