Sometimes it is hard not to see yourself in characters. Sometimes it makes films better, others worse. The oftentimes exceptional films are the ones however that you can’t. It is the different voices, the underutilised or forgotten ones that break through into films you wouldn’t expect that make the loudest impact. Late Night might be a film wrapped up in the coat of an inspirational comedy but underneath it is a comedy about people finding their voices. Be it an oft-ignored minority opinion, a woman branded with the insulting ‘hysterical’ descriptor or someone deemed over-the-hill. Writer Mindy Kaling has written a film devoted to these voices and it might just be some of the best writing this year.
Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) is a veteran Late Night talk show host looking at the end of her career as the network has decided to replace her. Facing her own irrelevance she decides to fight back with the help of some fresh blood in the form of naive, newbie writer Molly Patel (Kaling). Together the two discuss ideas to return her waining show to relevance and maybe, just maybe, say something important at the same time.
While plenty of Late Night is devoted to discussing gender politics, this isn’t a film that wants to discuss one issue. This isn’t an issues film, it is entertainment first and foremost. Kaling uses the subtext of women in Hollywood to enhance an already bristlingly funny script into something rapturous. It is equal measures condescending, informative and dry but the vicious wit on display matches perfectly with Molly and Katherine’s personalities. A snapshot of past and present, these two represent the vocal and the silenced, with Thompson playing to perfection a woman beaten down by a business intent on praising conformity despite seemingly ‘praising’ the risque.
The double standards of fame and the toxicity of Hollywood feel relevant in today’s era of middle ground talk shows afraid to push boundaries in case they offend anyone. Kaling and Thompson seem intent on making these voices authentic by proving that celebrities are people too, with their own opinions on issues other than making whatever skit they come up with amusing. By treating its characters as people, director Nisha Ganatra mocks the downward trajectory of today’s comedy industry.
An unfortunate side story about privacy in a post google age feels too forced to mesh with the rest of the film and the dependable yet unremarkable side characters let down a film intent on saying something about women in a man’s world. For a business lacking in female voices, the male perspective here is remarkably silent. While it is about time for that, it is disappointing that the film’s supporting cast are so painfully unremarkable. Despite an emotionally charged performance by John Lithgow, there is a whole background world in Late Night that feels unimportant.
However, despite the odd moment where Kaling’s script leans too heavily on convention, Late Night is a terrific portrayal of changing times, new and interesting ideas and the notion that we are never too old to say something that needs saying. A film where you should come for the comedy but stay for the blistering satire and an impressive Thompson.