REVIEW – ‘Late Night’ aims to make a relevant point but is too generically clichéd for its own good

Workplace comedies have been around since the dawn of cinema. From golden age classics like His Girl Friday and The Shop Around the Corner to modern-day riots like Office Space and Anchorman, there’s comedic gold to be found in situational humour in the drudgery of office life. But for all the laughs, the genre can provide some sharp commentary on the state of the imbalance of power facing those who aren’t lucky enough to fall in the white male category.

Such is the case with Late Night; a deviously simple comedy aiming to make a relevant point about the perils facing women in the workplace in 2019. With a well-intentioned screenplay determined to invoke discussion from an audience, the film is not quite the roaring success it so desperately hopes to be. But thanks to the terrific pairing of Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling and plenty of lively humour, there’s plenty of solid entertainment still to be found.

Cantankerous U.S. late-night talk show host Katherine Newbury (the ever-reliable Emma Thompson) is a veteran of the television industry, having hosted Tonight with Katherine Newbury for close to 30 years. But in recent times, the show has grown stale and ratings have sharply declined. While Katherine shuns social media and insists on only interviewing “stuffy” noted authors and luminaries (aka those she deems worthy of her time), her rival late-night play host to big-name actors, boundary-pushing stand-up comedians, and buzzworthy viral Insta-celebrities.

After being warned by network president Caroline Morton (Amy Ryan) the show’s days are numbered unless Katherine can revive her lagging popularity, the talk show host decides hiring a female writer is the answer. The lazy all-male writer’s room is clearly in need of shaking up, and, right on cue, in walks aspiring Indian-American comedy writer Molly Patel (an endearing Mindy Kaling), a chemical plant worker looking for her big break in show business.

While it’s clear to anyone with a pair of eyes Molly is nothing more than a token “diversity hire,” the plucky amateur is determined to make the most of her opportunity, much to the dismay of her male cohorts, who have all been putting in minimal effort at their cushy jobs to the point of sheer complacency. With their fragile egos threatened by the newcomer, it’s clear Molly is not a welcome addition to the team.

Instantly making waves by calling out the obvious reasons for the show’s decline, Molly is met with toxic masculinity resistance from her dudebro colleagues, particularly head writer Tom Campbell (Reid Scott), who’s still sore over his younger brother missing out on the writing gig. But when Molly’s daring ideas grab Katherine’s attention, she could just be the key turning the tide on the show’s impending doom.

Shining a blinding light on the insanely timely issues of equality and diversity in the workplace for both women and minorities (and god help anyone who falls into both categories), Late Night arrives at just the right time. In the wake of the Time’s Up and #MeToo movements, Kaling’s impressive debut screenplay provides pointed commentary on the current state of male-dominated industries all over the globe.

Its focus may be on the entertainment world, but sexism and racism (casual or otherwise) are rife in any office building, making the film entirely relevant to any audience. As a female comedy writer herself, it’s clear Kaling has infused her screenplay with personal experience (she was the only female writer on the first season of The Office), given she’s likely faced all manner of hurdles to arrive at this point of her career. Much like Tina Fey’s work on the sorely-missed 30 Rock, Late Night feels almost autobiographical in nature.

While Fey’s brilliantly satirical masterwork took a sharp hot poker to the entertainment industry, Late Night never quite lands the same impact, choosing silly one-liners and a gooey romantic subplot over the deep introspections the narrative flirts with. Indeed, Kaling is committed to presenting numerous ideas related to deeply important social issues, but her touch is a tad too light to truly go after them in a manner befitting of something so painfully pertinent to 21st-century culture.

Instead, Late Night plays more like a reworking of The Devil Wears Prada, particularly in its portrayal of the culture clash between an inexperienced and naive fish-out-of-water and a Miranda Priestly-esque dragon-lady boss who could strip the flesh from her subordinates faces with just once look. This is a character who finds her writers so inconsequential and unimportant, she assigns them each a number instead of learning their names. Is it all a little absurd? Sure, but that’s comedy, after all.

It’s a role that fits Thompson like a glove, with her penchant for acerbic wit and lethal insults on deft display. In another of her many brilliant performances, Thompson is in fine form here, reminding us of the effortless and versatile performer she has always been. Her comedic timing is put to perfect use, as are her impeccable dramatic skills when the comedy fades to the background, particularly in a touching subplot regarding the strained relationship with her husband, Walter (John Lithgow), who is in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease.

As for Kaling, she’s typically warm and lovable and Molly’s earnest and sweet-natured charisma is incredibly engaging and inviting. It’s hard to ignore the implausibility of her career trajectory that’s truly unfathomable in a highly competitive industry so impossibly difficult to crack for even those with years of experience. But suspension of disbelief is required in these kinds of workplace comedies, so you just have to go with it. It’s the closest Kaling has come to a leading film role thus far, and, as both writer and star, she’s entirely committed to making it all work.

Where Late Night falls flat on its face is a rather pointless romantic subplot involving Molly and one of the show’s writers that feels more like a tacked-on afterthought than a necessary narrative detour. When the film veers into this territory, it drags the pacing of the overall picture to a halt, especially given the lack of chemistry between Kaling and her male co-star. It’s hard to describe the issues with the film’s final act without spoiling the whole thing, but certain moments feel far too easily resolved and jarringly inauthentic for a film so steadfastly determined to highlight the brutal and cruel world of showbiz.

Regardless, Late Night is still wonderfully entertaining and dotted with enough laughs to make this worth your while. It’s often too generically clichéd for its own good, but its intentions are pure and there’s enough sharp writing here to get its important thematic messages across. The balance of true equality may still seem far on the horizon, but films like Late Night are necessary to edge us closer to change that’s long overdue.

Distributor: Roadshow
Cast: Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, Max Casella, Hugh Dancy, John Lithgow, Denis O’Hare, Reid Scott, John Early, Ike Barinholtz, Amy Ryan
Director: Nisha Ganatra
Producers: Mindy Kaling, Howard Klein, Ben Browning, Jillian Apfelbaum
Screenplay: Mindy Kaling
Cinematography: Matthew Clark
Music: Lesley Barber
Production Design: Elizabeth Jones
Editing: Eleanor Infante, David Rogers
Running Time: 102 minutes
Release Date: 8th August 2019 (Australia)