Late Night (2019)

345 Late Night

Highly polarised reactions to a movie often points to some kind of demographic partition that accentuates difference of opinion. In the case of Late Night (2019) the challenge is to work out if the partition is on gender, race, age, or political correctness lines. Or is it a burger with the lot?

The central plotline is simple but laced with subtleties. Fifty-six-year-old Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) has been a celebrated talk show host for decades, but in recent years her trademark sharp-tonged wit has lost its edge and ratings are plummeting. Desperate for new ideas, she turns on her team of all-male writers whom she has never met and orders a “diversity hire” as if ordering pizza. At the same time, inexperienced Indian-American Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling) is looking for a career in comedy writing. She is hired immediately, and the presence of the coloured young woman changes production dynamics and improves the show. It also leads to various predictable sub-plots that increase the film’s narrative density but add little else.

The most poignant sub-plot concerns Katherine’s relationship with her Parkinson’s-affected husband Walter (John Lithgow). He is a grounding reality and the only relationship that really matters in her life. When a brief affair with a staffer becomes public and she is about to be fired, Katherine’s world is set to collapse. It is Molly who shows Katherine how to fight back in a misogynist and populist industry.

A stellar ensemble cast supports Emma Thompson in one of her most powerful character portraits in years; and she has many to her credit. Few actresses can keep an audience close while being disagreeable and unlikeable in almost every scene. The humour is wry rather than comic, and the often-cliched script will not earn any awards.. But the story itself will resonate amongst viewers sympathetic to the film’s too obvious #me-too ingredients of gender, race, age, and political correctness. This is why reactions to this clever and engaging film are so polarised.

A lot of movie opinion is captive to the textual elements of plot, character, casting and genre. But a film’s current external context can offer broader meaning. In a Trumpian world, truth and integrity are dwarfed by political expediency while mass media has lost the moral compass it took centuries to earn. When Late Night celebrates Katherine’s survival, it is a Faustian pact with the trashy end of TV news and a metaphor for moral despair. This film is right on message.

3 half

Director: Nisha Ganatra

Stars: Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, John Lithgow