Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling) has just gotten a new job. A struggling comedienne who, up until now, has been forced to test out her best material on her coworkers at a chemical plant, Molly is hired to join the writing staff of late night talk show host, Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson). Even though Molly knows that she was largely hired so that the show could claim to have a diverse writing staff (all of the other writers are white males), she is still thrilled to be working for Katherine. Why wouldn’t she be? Katherine is a notoriously difficult boss who can’t even be bothered to learn the names of most of the people working for her but Katherine is also a legend, one of the first women to ever host her own late night talk show.
Of course, all legends have to come to an end and Katherine’s career as a late night talk show host appears to be in its final days. Katherine’s rating have been in a steep decline for several years and her nonthreatening monologues and habit of booking guests like Doris Kearns Goodwin are not doing much to reverse the trend. Safely hidden away in her mansion and continually worried about the health of her Parkinson’s-stricken husband, Walter (John Lithgrow), Katherine has grown out of touch. Making matters even worse, the president of the network (played by Mindy Kaling’s Office co-star, Amy Ryan) hates Katherine and is eager to replace her with an obnoxious, Dane Cook-style comedian named Daniel Tennant (Ike Barinholtz).
Molly’s new job is a struggle at first. The other writers dismiss Molly as merely being a “diversity hire” while Katherine often seems to be put off by Molly’s cheerful earnestness. Over time, Molly proves herself and soon, she’s inspiring Katherine to refuse to leave her show without a fight. Gone are bland monologues and boring presidential historians, replaced by politically charged humor and YouTube stars.
Late Night, as you may remember, was a huge hit at Sundance back in January. Amazon Studios paid 13 million for the distribution rights. The film was released in June to generally positive reviews and …. well, it made very little money. Despite an extensive advertising campaign and a deluge of think pieces that literally begged audiences to see the film, Late Night flopped at the box office and it is estimated that, taking into account the film’s ad campaign, Amazon lost about 40 million dollars on the film.
Why wasn’t Late Night a bigger success at the box office? At the time, the popular answer was misogyny. While one should never discount that, I think that the film’s failure had more to do with the fact that the ad campaign made Late Night look more like the latest Netflix series than an actual cinematic experience. Like a lot of movies about TV, Late Night was a film that seemed like it could wait for television. I mean, I am the film’s target audience and even I waited to watch the film on Prime.
As for the film itself, it’s flawed but likable. Along with co-starring in the film, Mindy Kaling wrote the script and the dialogue is consistently witty, even if the plot occasionally struggles to keep up. At its best, this is a fun movie to listen to. Visually, the film’s a bit flat and there’s a big third act development that feels a bit forced but, for the most part, the film works. Not surprisingly, Emma Thompson is perfectly cast as Katherine and she delivers her razor sharp lines with the right mix of scorn and pathos. Mindy Kaling effortlessly holds her own opposite Thompson and even John Lithgow, who can usually be counted upon to chew every piece of scenery available to him, is effective in his small but important role. In the end, it’s kind of a sweet film and there’s something touchingly naive about the film’s steadfast belief that a late night talk show can actually be worth all the trouble.
Late Night is available on Prime so check it out.