Art spins from timely to dated on a dime. Late Night packs in references that are bound to instantly age as it examines the media landscape in the age of so-called diversity hires, #MeToo and social media activism. But it finds lasting wit and relevance in something much more intimate: the portrait of a public figure managing clinical depression and falling short of her own exacting standards.
Emma Thompson‘s Katherine Newbury is blistering in a more accessible way than the most obvious comparable protagonist: The Devil Wears Prada‘s Miranda Priestley. Newbury is steely, brusque and thoughtless, but not particularly enigmatic. She doesn’t trouble to hide her contempt for the new crop of comics that bewilder her, and flies into self-righteous rages. Likewise Kaling’s Molly is no naive ingenue. Her handful of newbie missteps are more than tempered by her determination to say things as she sees them. Completely aware of all the advantages people lazily believe she’s getting, she makes sure to grab every genuine opportunity that comes her way.
That awareness of the uneven landscape runs through every scene; it’s the source of the funniest jokes – and there are many genuine belly laughs – and the most enraging condescension. It’s risky embedding a show within a show, but Kaling delivers quality on both counts. And it’s in the nuances where her script is most powerful, as Newbury lashes out and undermines herself just to have somewhere to channel her pain. Meanwhile director Ganatra keeps it light and pacy throughout – which might be why the stakes never feel very high, even at Newbury’s lowest ebb.
Late Night is refreshing, charming and insightful, but falls just short of top-notch status by never being sure if it’s going full Hollywood. At its bravest, funniest and most affecting when it stays honest, it could lose a layer of gloss to shine even brighter.
CAST: Mindy Kaling, Emma Thompson, John Lithgow, Hugh Dancy, Reid Scott, Denis O’Hare
DIRECTOR: Nisha Ganatra
WRITER: Mindy Kaling
SYNOPSIS: An acerbic late-night talk-show host finds her career on the line after a decade of decline – so cynically seeks a ‘diversity hire’ for her all-male, all-white writing staff in the hope of boosting her ratings.