HomeMovies'Late Night' Review: This Film Deserves Awards Attention

‘Late Night’ Review: This Film Deserves Awards Attention

Emma Thompson Late Night
Photo Courtesy Amazon Studios

There’s a moment in 1987’s Broadcast News where one character says to another: “It must be nice to always believe you know better, to always think you’re the smartest person in the room.” The know-it-all in question is Holly Hunter’s Jane Craig, a brilliant TV news producer who lives for her work. Rather than respond in kind to her older, male coworker’s backhanded compliment, Jane responds with brutal honesty. “No, it’s awful,” she says. Watching that film, it’s easy to understand how Jane would become so jaded: she’s a qualified, competent woman forced to watch mediocre men easily advance while she scrapes and fights for every opportunity. Who wouldn’t become bitter and mean as a result? That question is in part explored by the new comedy, Late Night, a brilliant, thoughtful film that will be a major awards contender if there’s any justice in this world.

In the film’s case, the frustrated woman is Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson), who, unlike Jane, is a comedian who has risen to the top her profession by being the longtime host of a late-night network talk show. Unfortunately, Katherine has grown complacent in her 28-year tenure. Her writer’s room is a boys’ club of white men with degrees from prestigious universities who got hired thanks to nepotism and her refusal to engage in social media or feature more pop culturally relevant guests has caused a 10-year decline in her ratings. So, it should be no surprise when the network’s new president, Caroline Morton (Amy Ryan), tells Katherine that this season will be her last with the show. Desperate to find a way save her job, Katherine tells her head writer, Brad (Dennis O’Hare), to hire a female writer. Enter Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling, who also wrote and produced the film).

Molly is not the typical candidate for the job. Not only is she a woman of color who didn’t go to an Ivy League school, but she has no professional comedy writing experience at all, instead cutting her teeth by telling jokes over the intercom as an efficiency expert at a chemical plant. Though Kaling sells Molly’s hiring by having her make Brad laugh just as Katherine calls to scream at him to hire a female writer already, it’s still a pretty far-fetched plot point. That said, there and throughout, Kaling’s script can be forgiven for straining against believability because while Katherine, Molly and every other character are meant to seem like real people, they’re also parts of what’s essentially an elaborate allegory about our current culture.

Molly embodies intersectional feminism: she’s a woman of color from a working class and possibly immigrant family who doesn’t have the same advantages as the male writers who resent her for criticizing their work as lazy and myopic. Katherine may spitefully call her a “diversity hire” at one point, but Molly works hard to excel and she gets the opportunity to live her dream through hard work and just a little bit of luck. By contrast, Katherine, with her chic pantsuits and severe haircut, represents the feminism of the ‘70s. A benefactor of the movement’s early work, her activism has gone inert. She’s still acutely aware of overt misogyny like that represented by the “sexist” hack comedian (Ike Barinholtz) who’s supposed to replace her, but she’s also internalized the misogyny that made it so hard for her to achieve her position in the first place.

Most importantly, she only has serious guests like historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, so, when Brad forces her to interview YouTube comedian, Mimi Mismatch (Annaleigh Ashford), she’s condescending and dismissive, subtly mocking her in the way Letterman used to delight in doing. To the film’s credit, it doesn’t fall into the same trap, rather, Mimi fires back at Katherine’s insinuations that her work is slight or thoughtless. There and throughout, what makes both the film and Thompson’s performance so impressive is that they’re not only willing to make Katherine flawed and unlikable, but push her to change.

Kaling’s dialogue is high in joke density and while all of the actors land their punchlines, Thompson’s work is exquisite. Katherine is frequently an unrepentant bitch, but she’s also often right and Thompson manages to keep the character’s brutal frankness playful enough to keep her from seeming utterly monstrous. When she assigns the writers numbers rather than learn their names, she’s certainly being an asshole, but Thompson delivers the lines with such casual disdain that it keeps things light and funny—not unlike Meryl Streep’s performance in The Devil Wears Prada. And just like Miranda Priestly, part of why Katherine demands so much of those around her because she demands perfection in herself.

Given that unrepentant confidence and skill, it’s somewhat disappointing that Katherine gets reformed in the way so many high-achieving women–both real and fictional–do: vulnerability and a degree of humiliation. It’s perhaps best not to say exactly how, but it’s perhaps also unfair to fault the film or Kaling for falling into that old pattern. Even the most conscientious women are still finding new ways to talk productively about how they’re perceived by male coworkers and a society so accustomed to faulting women for having flaws. Rather, Late Night deserves credit for not just tackling the subject but doing so in a thoughtful way that acknowledges both where feminism has been and where it’s going—all while delivering fully-formed characters and a compelling plot.

The simple fact is, if the Academy still acknowledged comedies, Late Night would be a shoo-in for a Best Picture nomination. Thompson gives the performance of a lifetime and the wit in Kaling’s script is as deadly as a freshly-sharpened razor. The film is perhaps not a flawless examination of this cultural moment, but that’s because that work is still in progress. And really, that’s fitting with the film’s point. Perfection is, by its very nature, impossible to achieve. The true mark of goodness is not to be flawless, but to always work toward being better.

Late Night opens in select Friday and nationwide next week.

Marisa Carpico
Marisa Carpico
By day, Marisa Carpico stresses over America’s election system. By night, she becomes a pop culture obsessive. Whether it’s movies, TV or music, she watches and listens to it all so you don’t have to.

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