PARK CITY – The biggest joy from Nisha Ganatra’s “Late Night” is that it will remind the global moviegoing community we need more Emma Thompson in our lives. The 58-year-old actress hasn’t had a leading role like this since 2013’s “Saving Mr. Banks” and screenwriter and producer Mindy Kaling gives her an enormous gift with the character of Katherine Newbury, a late night talk show host who may have outstayed her welcome. The combination of Thompson’s sharp delivery and Kaling’s commercially friendly script make the film’s charms hard to resist.
In this fictional universe, Newbury is a comedy legend. She’s won every award you can imagine, but after 25 years on the air, her ratings have slipped substantially and she’s particularly to blame. She won’t embrace the funny bits that make her competitors Jimmy Fallon and James Cordon so popular. She insists on booking smart intellectual women, such as Diane Feinstein (she’s only mentioned), who aren’t necessarily the most entertaining guests. And don’t even try to get her to use social media because that won’t go over well at all. Newbury is stubborn to a fault and it’s fairly obvious her producer (Denis O’Hare, solid) is doing his best just to keep the “same old, same old” version of the show running on a regular basis. She hasn’t kept a female writer on her all-white, all-male writing staff (he semi-jokes she “hates women”) and her writers barely contribute beyond a broad nightly monologue that would make even Jay Leno flinch.
Newbury’s complacency is shattered by two different newcomers into her world. First is the arrival of Molly (Kaling, charming), a newbie writer who earned her job interview through a contest from the talk show’s parent company. Second is the arrival of a new network president (Amy Ryan, perfect), who believes it’s Newbury’s time to go. If you think these changes will immediately get Newbury to turn things around, it doesn’t. With Molly naively breaking the status quo of network television left and right, Newbury takes notice. Things actually begin to turn around, until an unexpected scandal leaves the talk show host’s fate in limbo.
Besides Thompson’s performance, it’s Molly’s adventures with the skeptical and misogynistic writing staff that is the most entertaining part of the flick. The boy’s club (referred to by their numbers around a table because Newbury can’t remember their names) features some great actors including Hugh D’Arcy, Max Casella, Reid Scott, John Early, and Paul Walter Hauser, but only Scott and D’Arcy really gets a chance to make a valuable impression. Kaling’s script includes a lot of cutting jokes about nepotism, the #MeToo movement and diversity hires allowing her to make her strongest points in the writer’s room.
It goes without saying that “Late Night” has a lot of parallels to “The Devil Wears Prada,” but maybe that’s not a bad thing. Ganatra and the financiers have also crafted a movie that is studio ready and seemingly out of place for Sundance (it’s so slick it makes “The Big Sick” look like it was made on a $100,000 budget), but maybe that’s what the festival needs when the indie film world is competing for talent with streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon. In fact, it’s so commercially viable, a broader digging Amazon is acquiring it for a reported $13 million.
There does seem to be a missed opportunity with “Late Night,” however. Despite Thompson’s best efforts, it’s not as funny as you’d hope it would be and it takes a little too long to find its rhythm. You also really never understand how Newbury, who is British and curt, landed her gig in the first place. You can say someone is a comedy legendary, but in the context of the show, she rarely displays that skill (Thompson’s portrayal of Newbury is much funnier off the set than on it). It may seem like an insult to call the movie “cute,” for lack of a better descriptor, but it is? If that prospect and a shining Thompson have piqued your interest, it won’t be. [B]