It’s a rule of the screenwriting trade that if your movie is going to hinge on something outrageous and implausible, it’s best for it to happen upfront so the audience accepts it as the price of admission. All of which is to say that in Late Night, which debuted at Sundance this week, no time is spared before introducing Emma Thompson as Katherine Newbury, the host of a late-night talk show who has been on the network airwaves for nearly 30 years.
Late Night, which was written by Mindy Kaling and directed by Nisha Ganatra, deals with the threatened end of Katherine’s reign. An unabashed elitist, she’s been losing her grip on cultural relevance for more than a decade, and when the network gets a new president (Amy Ryan), one of the new boss’ first decisions is to ease her puffed-up pioneer out of the spotlight, replacing her with a bro-ish stand-up comedian played by Ike Barinholtz. But given that only a handful of women have ever hosted a network late-night show, and none of their tenures has come even remotely close to matching Katherine’s, I found myself briefly stuck on how the movie’s premise brings it closer to science fiction than the lighthearted comedy as which it presents itself. In Late Night, Katherine is apparently a singularity, but imagine a world in which a woman had held that position of cultural authority since the 1990s—one in which, perhaps, Johnny Carson had handed The Tonight Show to his frequent guest-host Joan Rivers, rather than spitefully cutting her out of his life for daring to host a show of her own. What would the landscape even look like now?
Late Night’s answer for why Katherine’s reign hasn’t had a wider cultural impact is that she’s effectively cut herself off from her femininity as the price of her success. Thompson wears her hair in an undercut and favors mannish suits, and her writers’ room is staffed entirely by white men—although she has so little interaction with them she doesn’t even know their names. (When she asks why one she does remember isn’t present, she’s informed he died in 2012.) Her producer—also a white man, played by Denis O’Hare—informs her it’s time to mix things up, if only for appearances’ sake. And rather than draw out a process she obviously finds beneath her, she hires the first woman who comes through the door: Kaling’s Molly Patel. Molly has zero experience, unless you count cracking jokes over the P.A. at the chemical plant where she works, but she’s a devout comedy nerd, and a Katherine Newberry fan in particular, which, combined with her being an outsider in almost every imaginable way, makes her uniquely positioned to pinpoint where the show has gone off-track.
Late Night’s subject feels timely, and it’s uncommonly crowd-pleasing, even broad, for a Sundance movie, which is undoubtedly why Amazon plunked down a record-setting $13 million for it. (Thompson might be a dark-horse Best Actress contender, but one trend in Sundance sales this year has been the focus on possible popular hits without much regard for their award potential.) Still, there’s something generic and unfocused at its core. Kaling has loads of experience in writers’ rooms, if not for late night shows per se, and Ganatra has directed tons of series TV, but the movie doesn’t feel especially informed by that experience. For all its naked surrealism, 30 Rock felt closer to the inside of a real TV show.
That said, it’s also clear that the movie is more interested in workplace dynamics than this workplace itself. (The number of reviews of Late Night that do not mention The Devil Wears Prada is vanishingly small.) Katherine, who came up through a male-dominated hierarchy, surrounds herself with men, and waves off Molly’s attempt to insert a joke about abortion into the show’s opening monologue—even broaching the subject feels like it’s revealing too much of herself. (I was put in mind of Veep’s Selina Meyer, who flies into a panic when the idea of even acknowledging her gender is raised.)
But Molly, who recalls stand-up bits from the 1980s when Katherine talked about her clinical depression, sees those personal elements as a strength, not as a distraction, and believes that the show’s audience will, too. Katherine doesn’t want her staff to have lives outside of work, but Molly puts forth the idea that those lives affect their work whether they acknowledge it or not, and that the kinds of lives the show’s writers lead, and the kinds of people they are, could use a substantial amount of shaking up.
That happened at Sundance this year, where many of the biggest deals went to movies written and directed by women and people of color, including Lulu Wang’s The Farewell ($6 million) and Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded by the Light ($15 million). We still live in a world without a Katherine Newberry, but Late Night itself could be part of changing that.