Late Night tackles the rare big screen subject of a prime time talk show. A queen of comedy is playing out the string as her long-running chat series continues a ratings slump. Even the comedian’s husband acknowledges that the show is bad. The threat of cancellation forces the host to shake up her writing staff with a little diversity.
Fictional talk show host Katherine Newbury is played by Emma Thompson. Mindy Kaling stars as the diversity hire. The Office actress is a fresh-faced addition to the writer’s room with bright ideas. It is a premise that looks genius on paper. Unfortunately, Late Night does not deliver the laughs that made it so intriguing.
The two sharp leads were not the only promising aspect of the film. Kaling wrote and produced the comedy. It even broke a record before its wide release. It snagged a record $13 million distribution deal after its Sundance film festival debut. The kind of hype that almost ensures that something special is afoot. Furthermore, Amazon snapped up Kaling’s film – the same company that struck gold with Kumail Nanjiani’s comedy The Big Sick two years ago.
Instead of Oscar, Late Night is more reminiscent of the dreadful 1996 HBO film The Late Shift. The flick was based on Bill Carter’s account of the Letterman-Leno Tonight Show wars. Despite the potential for Hollywood drama, that late night flick whiffed in so many ways.
Part of this is due to the challenge of presenting the everyday aspect of television as a film. Late Night tries to squeeze the grind of a television show into a 102-minute comedy, but the story is rushed and characters are not well-developed.
Little background expands Kaling and Thompson’s characters. Certainly not enough to make you invested in them. Kaling just arrives on the screen. That is usually fine (it is Mindy Kaling). More insight into her background would make Kaling’s character worth rooting for.
Not much shows off her character’s comedy chops. Her skills as a former quality control manager actually come more into play. One solid nugget is that her character hails from Luzerne County, Pennsylvania (Kaling’s The Office was also set there).
To compound the issue, Emma Thompson’s character faced dwindling popularity for a decade (imagine a movie about the end of Letterman and Leno’s shows). She is so stubborn about change and is cold to her staff. The only reason to pull for the refined Newbury is that her possible replacement represents the dark underbelly of bro comedy.
The quick buildup and lack of fleshed out characters sinks Late Night. The story is condensed to the point where it does not breathe enough. Despite a unique premise, the script is almost paint-by-numbers and there are few memorable scenes. Late Night is more of an Amazon Prime renter than a blockbuster. After one watch, there is little to make it worth seeing again.