Film Review: “Late Night”, Starring Emma Thompson
Professor Trelawney and Kelly Kapoor walk onto a late night television stage and are a smash. We already knew that Dame Emma Thompson was a comic wonder based on her portrayal of the eccentric Professor Trelawney, and now this soon-to-be hit film, written by Mindy Kaling, adds a whole new dimension to Thompson’s Oscar-winning career.
Late Night tells the story of Molly (Kaling), a wannabe comedy writer with no experience who becomes a diversity hire on the writing staff of her favorite late night talk show host, Katherine Newbury (Thompson). Tonight with Katherine Newbury is a sinking ship, and Newbury has one final season at the helm before she is replaced by someone younger and less female. Molly might just bring the fresh perspective the show needs to keep it, and Newbury’s career, alive.
First things first: Give Thompson, Kaling, or both, their own late night shows, stat. Newbury is a legend in the late night scene as the only female host, and one with an astonishing number of Emmy Awards to her name, but our reality is sorely lacking in this area. Both Thompson and Kaling charm with their wit, snark, and ability to pass the Bechdel test frequently. This is a film not only about women in entertainment but also about people of all genders balancing life and career, coping with illness and loss, and learning to grow as professionals and people.
Thompson shines as Newbury and handles herself in a way that feels new for the woman known as Nanny McPhee, Elinor Dashwood, and Shakespeare’s Beatrice. She is not only funny but also painstakingly human. Despite being quite coarse toward others for most of the film, Thompson manages to be lovable even in her darkest and cruelest moments. It’s hard not to root for Thompson’s character, even when she shows all the sensitivity of a blunt ax. It’s a performance that echoes the no-nonsense, straight-talking personality that makes Thompson so beloved in this industry.
For example, Newbury shares Thompson’s demonstrated impatience with high heels in a moment that highlights the fact that Kaling wrote the role for Thompson. In a talkback after an early screening on Wednesday night, Kaling spoke about writing Newbury’s character with Thompson in mind and was thrilled to discover a small window of opportunity when both were available for the project. Kaling includes small details of Thompson’s roots throughout the film, which makes it a real treat for fans of the actress. Keep an eye out for a brief, but real, clip of Thompson performing stand-up comedy way back in the day.
Kaling shines in her screenplay debut, which required her to write six different types of comedy styles, including monologues, stand-up, and banter. She and Thompson are a delight to watch on-screen with a wonderful rapport that feels like they’ve been working together for years, although they had never met prior to this project.
Late Night has a star-studded cast including John Lithgow (Interstellar), Hugh Dancy (Ella Enchanted), Reid Scott (Veep), Denis O’Hare (The Proposal), Max Casella (Blue Jasmine), Ike Barinholtz (Suicide Squad), and Amy Ryan (Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Innocence)) . This is also the feature film directorial debut for Nisha Ganatra, who has directed for television shows such as Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Future Man, and The Mindy Project. Kaling noted during the live talkback that she felt it important to have a staff composed of at least 50% women and continue to provide opportunities in the entertainment world.
The film first premiered at Sundance Film Festival in January 2019 and was quickly purchased by Amazon Studios for distribution. We highly recommend coming out to support this indie film since it’s equally full of laugh and heart.
Late Night opens in New York and Los Angeles next Friday, June 7, and the rest of the country Friday, June 14.