Review: LATE NIGHT Benefits From Phenomenal Performances

Emma Thompson in Late Night. Credit: Emily Aragones, Courtesy of Amazon Studios.

Late Night is a new dramedy film written by and starring Mindy Kaling (The Office, The Mindy Project) and directed by Nisha Ganatra. In the movie, Kaling stars as a chemical plant worker who is hired to be a writer for a late night talk show suffering from declining ratings and an aging and out-of-touch host (Emma Thompson, Sense and Sensibility). It debuted at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival to positive reviews.

Kaling definitely brings her experience as one of the most popular women of color working in comedy today to the film, and as such, the movie feels very personal. However, although the film does have very good intentions of promoting inclusivity and the need for more diverse voices, it does not go much further beyond that. Although it is great to watch an inspiring movie about a woman of color achieving success, the film could have been more effective at expressing its point had it shown the systemic oppression of these voices.

Part of the reason why the movie doesn’t work quite as well as it should is that the character development is somewhat uneven. Although Kaling’s character, Molly, is likable enough to deliver the message effectively, her arc feels somewhat conventional and shallow. It is Thompson’s character, the embattled late night host, who has the more complex and interesting arc. Thankfully, this character’s arc still touches on many of the feminist themes, but the film loses sight of its racial commentary by focusing on the wrong character.

The story of the movie itself is relatively intriguing if you are interested in the way that the behind-the-scenes of the entertainment world works. That said, the film does verge into melodrama at times, especially when a mostly unnecessary romantic subplot is introduced. The more interesting conflict is the professional lives of the characters, so these sidebars exploring their personal lives are often annoying, especially because they have little impact on the narrative or characterization.

Mindy Kaling in Late Night. Credit: Emily Aragones, Courtesy of Amazon Studios.

From a comedian like Kaling, you would likely expect this movie to have non-stop laughter from beginning to end. This isn’t the case — but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Instead, we are given an emotionally-driven dramedy with a handful of exclusively comedic moments. When the film is funny, it’s very funny, but there are long stretches of the movie without any laughs. Some of these moments, especially the more melodramatic ones, do begin to feel slow and tiresome, but the film soon picks back up again with a comedic diversion or a change into the more interesting conflict.

Without any doubt, the best part of this movie is the cast. The ensemble elevates this film from being simply okay to something legitimately good because of the honesty their performances lend to the movie and characters. Kaling obviously wrote this role with herself in mind, and as such, she fits the character perfectly. Her turn is charming and funny, although her handful of emotional moments are very resonant too. It is Thompson that steals the spotlight, though, delivering what may be the performance of a lifetime in an already accomplished career. If Thompson isn’t in the conversation come awards season, someone has made a mistake. Her performance is among the most nuanced and perfectly-delivered you will see all year.

On a technical level, the film is relatively solid. You can tell that the filmmakers’ focus was more on capturing the performances and writing rather than telling the story visually, but it is done so in a way that is mostly effective. There are some very well-shot scenes, particularly the scenes in which Thompson delivers her monologues. The production design is somewhat disappointing as a whole, though, as more could have been done to immerse the audience in the world of “Tonight with Katherine Newberry”.

Overall, Late Night was a mostly solid movie. The script doesn’t quite live up to expectations, but it is compelling nonetheless, and the phenomenal performances by the cast make the film worth watching. It seems like Amazon was hoping this to be the indie breakout hit of the summer, but that probably won’t be the case.

Late Night opens in select theaters on June 7 and expands on June 14.

By Sean Boelman

Sean is a film student, aspiring filmmaker, and life-long cinephile. For as long as he can remember, he has always loved film, but he credits the film Pan's Labyrinth as having started his love of film as art. Sean enjoys watching many types of films, although some personal favorite genres include dramatic comedies, romantic comedies, heist films, and art horror.

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