Helen Tope reviews Late Night, showing in our cinema until Thursday 4 July.
Television has always made a good subject for film: Network, Good Night and Good Luck – there is a thrill at being allowed behind the scenes – the mechanics, the politics – that satisfies our curiosity.
Late Night, directed by Nisha Ganatra and written by Mindy Kaling, looks at the highly competitive world of American late-night television. Urbane, witty and gunning for ratings, the shows fight to outdo each other on a nightly basis. Currently populated by male hosts such as Jimmy Kimmel and James Corden, Late Night invents a television veteran, Katherine Newbury. British, female and over 50 – Newbury has been part of the late-night landscape for decades. Her show, once the talk of Hollywood, is now worthy to the point of dullness. Interviewing writers and academics, Newbury’s show has a problem – no-one is watching.
Urged by the head of her writing team, Brad (another great supporting performance from Denis O’Hare), Newbury must look at her show and revise. She makes a rare visit to her writing team – they are without exception, male, white and way too comfortable. Newbury, played by Emma Thompson, reluctantly accepts Brad’s advice and decides to hire a woman.
Enter stage right, Molly Patel is bright, earnest and yearns to be a comedy writer. Winning an essay-writing contest, Patel (played by Mindy Kaling) astutely selects her prize. A former quality control manager at a chemical plant, Molly gets her foot in the door at Katherine’s show. Without qualifications or experience, Patel is a candidate destined to fail. But under pressure, Newbury makes a diversity hire – Patel as an American-Indian woman, fits the bill perfectly.
Molly joins the writing room the following morning, as it is announced that Newbury is about to be replaced by lewd, boyish comedian Daniel Tennant (Ike Barinholtz). Patel is a huge fan of Katherine’s show, and can pinpoint the problems exactly. Newbury, not used to being criticised, demands solutions. The question is whether she is capable of change.
With a script that’s racy, daring and peppered with laugh-out-loud jokes, Late Night announces the death knell for the notion that women aren’t funny. Emma Thompson as Katherine Newbury is dark, acerbic and unapologetic. Despite her temper tantrums, Newbury is an expert in her field and doesn’t deserve to be side-lined. Newbury’s ability to play to the crowd is tempered with quieter moments of doubt and introspection. Her marriage to academic Walter Lovell (John Lithgow) is on borrowed time, as he has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
A fifty-something woman would usually be hovering on the fringes of the action, but here Thompson is placed squarely centre stage. Newbury is the light around which every other character gravitates. Thompson plays Newbury as mother and monster – the staff worship and fear her in equal measure.
Thompson has been enjoying a slew of great dramatic roles recently, including The Children Act and a chilling performance as Vivienne Rook in the BBC drama Years and Years. In this role, Kaling taps into Thompson’s gift for comedy and squeezes every ounce from it. Thompson glowers, sighs and disapproves – and it’s utterly glorious. Even in her worst moments – Newbury enjoys firing writers far too much – we still find ourselves rooting for this elitist snob.
Kaling applies her knowledge of writing for television and film (The Office, Wreck-it Ralph) to give Late Night a layer of authenticity. Gamely – and rightly – giving Thompson some of the bigger laughs, Kaling’s script avoids the easy cliches. Katherine’s nemesis, the formidable TV executive in charge of the show, is female (an impressively icy Amy Ryan). The white, middle-class monologue-writer-in-residence, Tom Campbell (Veep’s Reid Scott) is on the team not through contacts, but by hard work and talent.
As the struggle to keep Late Night under Newbury’s control plays out, Kaling very cleverly places us in the middle of a cultural dilemma. Katherine has been slow to adapt to the changing face of entertainment – she is late (and proudly so) to join Twitter – but she is also right in her take down of jock comedians and YouTubers for hire. Newbury is definitely guilty of not keeping up, but it’s where you then place that marker. Kaling asks us what we want from television; what in Newbury’s words, is deserving of our time. Newbury began her career in the age of appointment television, now your favourite show can be viewed on your phone. As Newbury re-learns the rules, she also makes it clear that there are non-negotiables. Where style over substance gains popularity, Newbury’s editorial toughness reads not as old-school, but essential for maintaining credibility and truth.
Kaling makes the point through the course of the film that television can only survive by welcoming fresh talent. But diversity isn’t about quotas, but actively supporting and encouraging new voices. Whether Late Night tries to resolve this issue too neatly is a third-act problem, but when the rest of the film is so sharp and deliciously on-point, Kaling can be forgiven for softening the edges.
In creating such a compelling character as Katherine Newbury, Kaling’s last question is whether late night television can call itself relevant when female hosts are notable by their absence. Thompson really sells the idea of an older woman connecting with younger audiences. As Katherine adapts to the new game, she’s not just watchable, she’s downright entertaining. There is no good reason for late-night television to remain a boys’ club. A new voice is long overdue, and if not now – when?