Over the past couple of years, I’ve gotten more and more into American Late Night talk shows. Not the vainglorious onanism of James Corden but the biting satire of the more political shows like “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” and “Late Night With Seth Meyers” (the host of which cameos as himself in the movie). Along with “Saturday Night Live”, they’ve become a daily YouTube staple for me and watching them regularly provided useful background familiarity for Mindy Kaling’s earnest comedy-drama “Late Night”.
Championing her own narrow view of quality over all else, late night talk show host Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) has seen her audience share and ratings eroded over the past decade as brasher, trashier comedians and shows rise in popularity. Facing the prospect of cancellation – or worse, being replaced – Newbury bristles at accusations of prejudice and being out of touch and in a knee-jerk reaction makes a diversity hire to placate her critics.
Kaling’s likeable screenplay has no time for subtlety and its bluntness in delivering its pointed and deliberate messages may rankle those whose politics take a different view but “Late Night” doesn’t really care and nor should it. Effectively “30 Rock” reimagined as a drama, there’s definitely humour here but it never really feels like an out and out comedy because it isn’t willing to risk trivialising its own agenda and there’s not even an Alec Baldwin character provided as a fig leaf to allow conservatives some degree of solace from the discomfiting frankness.
While the film is diligent in delivering its social payloads, the script doesn’t really provide much more than outlines for the characters inhabiting its morality play and its down to the skills of the cast, particularly Emma Thompson, John Lithgow and Kaling herself who add a great deal of depth and pathos to their characters through their performances to help carry the story.
While engaging and entertaining, ultimately it aims for a redemptive third act which doesn’t quite land as authentic, instead straying slightly into unearned wish fulfilment, and failing to provide a credible sense of emotional telemetry for the erosion of Thompson’s acerbic talk show host’s cynicism and selfishness.