Mon. Sep 21st, 2020

Review: Emma Thompson is excellent in Mindy Kaling’s ‘Late Night’

Emma Thompson in Late Night (photo courtesy of Sundance Institute | Emily Aragones)

Everything old is new again! Five or ten years back, a gentle little comedy like Late Night might have come and gone without a trace. It was a significantly different era for American culture – a different administration in office, a different perspective on the world, comfort and familiarity were out, and innovation was in. Sweet, affable, granny-friendly content was a relic of the ‘80s and ‘90s, though just as history is doomed to repeat itself, so too do the dismissed and derided genres of bygone times return again eventually, a warm blanket of comfort and familiarity to soothe the soul in trying times.

That spirit of innovation has not so much perished as it has transmuted into a spirit of defiance, one that seeks not to tweak and twist old formulas but to reframe them entirely. And so a film such as Late Night can remind you of countless similar films with similar tones and similar narratives while pursuing all of the above from a new, reframed position. The accessible, but not disingenuous, feminism of Mindy Kaling’s variety thus establishes in this film the character of Katherine Newbury: a female late-night talk show host and multi-award winning comic personality. Kaling’s political bent is sincere and fully-formed; she’s capable of juggling multiple viewpoints on her screenplay’s quietly radical recasting of this specific type of character, weaving together overtly progressive statements on gender and racial equality across a range of areas with the unstressed insouciance of her conceit. Why, of course this record-breaking talk show host is female! Why shouldn’t she be? She’s Emma Thompson!

Alas, Late Night’s earnest progressivism is an awkward fit with its artistic modesty, something which hobbles it considerably. With each new point Kaling makes, or each old one she reiterates, there’s a sense here that more could have been done to elevate such quality material. Her appreciation of character dynamics and social nuance is regularly suppressed by director Nisha Ganatra’s unfortunately humdrum style. Comfortable and familiar it is, and those are not derogatory terms, but there are methods of making those qualities profound and affecting, rather than merely incidental. No-one is calling for an experimental approach here, but a film like this simply needs to strive for at least a little more if it wants to achieve a little more. A season on television need not, since it has the extended scope with which to recompense for that, yet Late Night cultivates a small screen style with a big screen running time; the two media are each uniquely equipped to deliver on different artistic and dramaturgical aspects, and transferring one’s weaker points to the other can’t be properly negated by transferring its stronger points in the process.

As an examination of TV culture, here too Late Night falters. It’s a common but bizarre mistake across the field of artistic creation: depictions of one industry in another so rarely capture the right details in the right manner. I think of Birdman and its heinous misunderstanding of internet culture, or A Star Is Born (2018) and its curiously cheap, dated view on modern pop music. Late Night appreciates its subject of choice in its essence but not in all its intricacies – the studio set looks right, but is oddly compact, the staged comedy sequences hit the right tone, while the would-be improvised interview segments feel stilted and inauthentic. Whatever little pieces of magic make late night talk shows work so phenomenally well are missing in this fictional representation, thereby spoiling a central element to this film’s story.

Yet none of this is excessively injurious to what remains, indeed, a sweet and affable work. Kaling is her usual, amiable self, an ideal comedic lead making a strong case for herself as a bona fide Hollywood leading lady, should they consider her (spoiler alert: those nasty bastards probably won’t). She’s winningly awkward but persistent as a diversity hire on Newbury’s writing team, but Emma Thompson steals the whole show as Newbury herself. If her part is occasionally written as too aggressively bitter, Thompson never wavers in her ace construction of a singular character possessed of a great many facets – it’s yet another memorable performance from one of the screen’s most talented stars. Late Night may be far from a masterpiece, far too from being worthy of Thompson’s excellent work, but for the Dame herself, it’s worth staying up for.

Amazon Studios will release Late Night in New York and Los Angeles on June 7th and then go wide on June 14th.

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