I wanted to love Late Night... truly I did. Instead, it's more like one of a half-dozen titles that you might binge-watch some weekend on Amazon (for the record, Late Night is an Amazon production and will, not doubt, be binge-watchable before year's end). True, binge-watching might wash away a rainy day (along with a bottle of wine); but Late Night is that film you watched two- or three-movies ago that has already begun to fade from memory.
Late Night has a crackerjack cast, led by double-Oscar winner Emma Thompson (Howard's End, Sense and Sensibility), along with co-stars John Lithgow and Mindy Kaling (also the film's producer and screenwriter). But this satirical take on network television is more stagnant than spicy, more problematic than provocative. To that end, it plays like one of the less memorable episodes of the nearly always-snappy 30 Rock.
"Tom Cruise is the same age as me," says 50-something TV late night host Katherine Newbury (Thompson). "He stars in The Mummy, and gets to fight the mummy. I am the mummy!"
Hmmm. Perhaps "funny, ha," but certainly not "funny, ha, ha, ha, ha."
Katherine is a pioneer talk show host—the only woman to have a long-running program in this fictional world of late-night TV. Sadly, the late, great Joan Rivers was the only woman to truly break through the all-male late-night club. Even sadder, Late Night's Katherine is less Joan Rivers and more Hillary Clinton. Yes, Katherine has broken through the glass ceiling, but she hasn't really endeared herself to younger generations of her sisterhood. In fact, Katherine has an all-male team of comedy writers. When her ratings plummet and she's accused of being a "woman who hates women," Katherine puts gender equality on her "to-do list," and impulsively hires Molly Patel (Kaling), a chemical plant efficiency expert from suburban Pennsylvania, as the first and only woman on Katherine's writing staff. With rumors swirling that Katherine will soon be replaced by a younger, hipper male host, she demands that the writers make her "funny and relevant." A lifelong fan, Molly is determined to prove that she's not just a diversity hire, but the person who can turn her idol's career around. Molly urges Katherine to make the show more contemporary, authentic and personal, a move that could define Molly's career in comedy—or send her back to the chemical plant for good.
The premise is solid, and the issues of ageism and sexism make for fertile themes to explore, particularly with comedy. And goodness knows that Kaling has the acting and writing chops to get it done (she was the first woman and the first person of color to write for the hit sitcom The Office, created and starred in her own show, The Mindy Project, and penned two best-selling books). Unfortunately, too much of Late Night's comedy is pedestrian. Take, for example, an early scene where we first see Molly standing outside the theater where Katherine tapes her late-night show:
"I have spread my dreams under your feet," says the wide-eyed Molly, quoting poet W.B. Yeats. "Tread softly because you tread on my dreams." In a split second, Molly is smacked, face-first, with a big stinking bag of New York City garbage. It's a scene that you might have seen in one of hundreds of sitcoms of the 1980s, or 70s, or 60s, or 50s. Yes, it's rather humorous; but if I were to tell you that it was the best laugh in the film.... well, I think you're getting the picture.
It's worth repeating that the supporting cast is swell: the aforementioned Lithgow as Katherine's too-droll husband, Hugh Dancy (Hannibal), Denis O'Hare (This is Us), Reid Scott (Veep), Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone) and Max Casella (Inside Llewyn Davis). Truth be told, the cast appears to be fighting a bit too hard to be spinning some comedy gold, but the end result is more flaxen than fine.
I truly wish I could compare Late Night to, say The Devil Wears Prada or even 30 Rock. Alas, I can only compare it to Morning Glory, a 2010 comedy with a similar tale of a young woman fighting to survive in the male-dominated world of network television. That too was a so-so comedy—the type you might binge-watch someday and forget soon thereafter.