Emma Thompson’s Late Night lacks a crucial comic spark

This film about late-night talk-show hosts lacks the most basic familiarity with its own world.

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In 30 Rock, Tina Fey transformed her experience of being the first female head writer on Saturday Night Live into delirious weekly crescendos; even at its nuttiest, the show contained glinting truths about the drubbings endured by women in that male environment. Mindy Kaling also bears behind-the-scenes battle scars: as an American woman of Indian descent, she was hired through a diversity writing programme to work on the US version of The Office before creating her own sitcom, The Mindy Project. She channels that background into her first screenplay, Late Night, which is essentially The Devil Wears Prada (scary boss, timid young upstart) in a chat-show setting. Though the film is about people striving for comic excellence, its own quality control hints that mediocre is good enough; it’s stuck between 30 Rock and a hard place.

Kaling plays Molly Patel, who benefits from the decision of the late-night talk-show host Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) to bring a woman into her all-male back-room team to help arrest a ratings decline. Katherine, who sports the platinum hair of Dolph Lundgren in Rocky IV and is just as vicious, has been a star for decades, but is so distant she doesn’t even know her writers’ names. Molly suggests that what Katherine needs is to show more spirit and personality in her humour. The boss’s favour, though, brings its own problems. As one of the other writers grumbles: “I wish I was a woman of colour so I could just get any job I want with no qualifications.”

The film traces Molly’s ascent from her lowly position – she makes her writing debut perched on an upturned bin – but the more compelling material shows Katherine trying awkwardly to humanise herself. Even when Thompson delivers the worst monologue of her career (one of those live-on-air confessionals with cutaways to tearful viewers at home), she brings an electrifying level of commitment. She has a fizzy rapport with the wonderful Denis O’Hare as her executive producer, his face as creased as a screwed-up invoice, his every line-reading a marvel of comic hesitancy.

It’s a pity that Kaling’s screenplay never properly joins the dots between Molly’s struggles to make it to the top and Katherine’s determination to stay there. If Molly’s dialogue proved her to be the firecracker that everyone thinks she is, the connection between them would feel less tenuous. But her entire reputation is based on one gag suggesting that politicians don’t get much sex, and a supposedly daring mention of the menopause – material more suited to the barren jokescapes of The Now Show on Radio 4 or The Mash Report on BBC Two than to Emmy-winning television.

The picture lacks the most basic familiarity with its own world. Other talk-show hosts are namechecked, and one (Seth Meyers) even appears, but nobody points out that the irreverent vox pops that revive Katherine’s popularity are facsimiles of old David Letterman routines. And if Molly really is the fangirl she claims to be, how could she mistake Katherine’s veteran writer for a newcomer like herself? (Comedy nuts are a unique breed of nerd: they know the name of every Seinfeld staffer and their snack of choice.) It’s inconceivable, too, that Katherine would only now decide to hire a publicist: in reality she couldn’t have got where she is without a whole phalanx of them.

Scenes in the writers’ room feel especially bogus. Molly is warned that it’s a non-PC enclave, but we hear nothing that might turn the air even the feeblest shade of blue. Compared to the seething backstage cesspool of The Larry Sanders Show, this one is a soft-play area. As for the sets, I’ve seen Ikea showrooms that looked more lived-in. My vote for the most bizarre scene, though, has to go to the marriage-saving heart-to-heart between Katherine and her husband, Walter (John Lithgow). I’m just trying to imagine how they settled on the unorthodox venue for their intimate chat.

Her: “We need to talk.”

Him: “I agree. How about the auditorium of the local theatre before opening hours?”

Her: “Perfect. I’ll stride along the aisle while you begin addressing me from a solitary chair on the stage.” 

Late Night (15)
dir: Nisha Ganatra

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 07 June 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump alliance