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Non-Review Review: Late Night

As the title implies, Late Night is a film about a late night American chat show, a prime-time institution that has lost its edge and finds itself almost at the bottom of a slide into irrelevance.

Katherine Newbury is a British comedian who landed a plum gig on American television and never looked back. Her nightly chat show is a fixture of the cultural landscape; the film opens with Newbury accepting a comedy award, and a late scene takes place in a room in her house that seems to be overflowing with trophies. However, there is also a sense that Late Night with Katherine Newbury has become sloppy in its old age. Ratings have been declining for a decade. The network is eager to replace the veteran broadcaster with somebody younger and fresher.

Talking shop.

Against this backdrop, Molly Patel arrives. A young woman with no direct comedy experience, Molly finds herself drafted into the writers’ room as a cynical “diversity hire.” A former “factory” (“chemical plant,” she repeatedly and insistently clarifies) worker, Molly is a big fan of the show who also understands that it needs a course correction. Indeed, Late Night accepts that the old-fashioned format needs to be updated, and becomes a battle over how best to modernise the template. Network president Caroline Morton and talent agent Billy Kastner suggest radical reinvention, but Molly thinks the basic template is still sound.

To a certain extent, it feels like Late Night is having a conversation with itself about itself. The movie belongs to the familiar tried-and-true template of the “new job or career crisis” comedy, those films about inexperienced characters who find themselves thrown into a new job with no real grounding and forced to adapt to their circumstances; Second Act is the most recent example, but there are plenty to choose from including Morning Glory, The Ugly Truth, 9 to 5, Working Girl. It is a familiar genre, the first-cousin of (and often interwoven with) the romantic comedy.

A bright spot.

The romantic comedy has been having a very public conversation with itself in recent years, playing out through the viral success of Netflix’s love letters to the genre like Set It Up or in more straightforward but more diverse big screen iterations like The Big Sick or Crazy Rich Asians. Indeed, Late Night feels like something of a companion piece to The Big Sick and Crazy Rich Asians, a film that fundamentally understands the sturdiness of the narrative template with which it is working. Like Molly’s approach to the eponymous show, Late Night understands that the basic structure doesn’t need renovation, just the content.

The result is an endearing workplace comedy that plays as a loving homage to the genre, elevated primarily through execution. Late Night understands the importance of new perspectives and reacting to a changing world, but it also understands what fundamentally works in movies like this. Late Night benefits from two fantastic central performances from Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling, playing two very well-drawn characters. It is consistently funny, but also consistently well-observed. Late Night demonstrates that the workplace comedy works for a reason, and sets out to demonstrate the genre’s robustness.

Addressing the issues…

Perhaps the most cynical thing that could be said about Late Night is that it is formulaic. That is certainly accurate; as with Set It Up or The Big Sick or Crazy Rich Asians, the film understands the beats and rhythms of a story like this. There are no surprises in the basic narrative structure, which flows exactly as the audience might expect; Molly arrives and is treat with hostility, Katherine wrestles with her own creeping sense of irrelevance, Molly slowly proves her worth and earns Katherine’s trust, then something happens in the third act that threatens to upend the entire status quo just as things seemed to be working.

There are a few moments at which this does get slightly frustrating; most notably Lesley Barber’s score falls into the familiar trap of telling the audience how to feel in a given moment, overwhelming the characters and undercutting the performances. Late Night has the benefit of two fantastic lead actors, and it seems ill-judged not to trust them to carry simple emotional beats. However, for the most part, the cleanliness of Late Night works in its favour. Various character beats and arcs are neatly set up, including a number of very obvious red flags in early workplace romance that neatly set up various later developments.

For the most part, Late Night benefits from strong casting. Thompson is a charismatic presence, capable of balancing comedy and drama effectively. The role of Katherine requires a delicate balance; the dynamics of the workplace comedy require Katherine to be a demanding and self-centred boss, but the narrative also requires her to become sympathetic as the story develops. It is to the credit of Kaling as a writer and Thompson as a performer that the character never veers too far from one extreme to another; her humanity is present from the outset, and her self-centred candour remains in place at the climax.

Similarly, Kaling works very effectively in the other archetype that tends to occupy these stories, the young fish out of water with earnest aspirations and a can-do attitude. Kaling wrote the script for Late Night, and so understands the way in which these stories work, with Molly’s desire to make a good impression crashing against the realities of working in a highly charged (and testosterone-driven) writers’ room. Kaling understands the fine balancing act between making Molly too sympathetic and acknowledging the pragmatic mechanics of this sort of environment.

Great chemistry.

Indeed, Late Night generally does a good job of balancing the fantastical conventions of this sort of story with the more cynical realities, ultimately opting for a very fanciful and romantic view of television production with just enough world-weariness baked in to keep it grounded. The script is never afraid to acknowledge how hostile the staff are towards Molly, down to the fact that the women’s restroom in the office is used by the male employees because they’ve “never had a woman before.” At the same time, the script also acknowledges that Molly’s use of her status as a minority gives her leverage.

The result is a film that feels more candid and anchored than many similar movies; Molly is able to use her status as the only woman on staff to make her “invaluable” to Katherine, but the film is candid that this does not compensate for or cancel out the other challenges that stand in her way, that Molly must succeed on her own terms and that she must prove her worth just as much as (if not more than) everybody else on staff. This is a canny narrative choice, allowing Late Night to acknowledge changing times, but without forcing the story to contort into especially uncomfortable shapes.

On the record.

Indeed, there’s a refreshing open-mindedness to be found in Late Night, particularly in its exploration of generation clashes in media. Films like Late Night tend to have a very romanticised and idealised view of the media’s role and function, a sense that there is a “right” way to produce media even as social norms shift around it. This often reflects itself in the sort of strange stodgy conservatism of something like The Newsroom, a television show about the virtues of an old-fashioned approach in a rapidly-changing era.

Here, again, Late Night strikes a careful balance. It would be easy for the film to align its sympathies too readily with Katherine, the establishment figure who sees YouTube celebrities as beneath her and who thinks it’s hilarious to joke about hitting “fav” for more than one tweet at a time. There are moments in Late Night where Katherine seems like one of the millennial-mocking leads in Wine Country, an older person looking down their nose at kids who have no appreciation for how the world is supposed to work.

Street cred.

At the same time, it would also be easy to align too neatly with the forces that align directly against Katherine, the network executives and the talent agents who desperately want to pander to younger audiences and to abandon any sense of history or tradition in a desperate effort to win over the lowest common denominator. A lesser movie might force Katherine through an arc of attrition, forcing her to realise that the world has changed and that she needs to either completely abandon everything that came before in the pursuit of something new or get out of history’s way.

Late Night cannily understands the strengths of both approaches, and offers a considered compromise. Molly acknowledges that Katherine has lost touch with her audience, reducing her sign-off catchphrase “I hope I was worthy of your time” to trite pro forma recitation. Indeed, one of the most effective scenes in the film features Katherine sneeringly and condescendingly interviewing a YouTube celebrity, who promptly ends the interview with a curt, “You need me more than I need you.”

Instead, Molly pushes Katherine to retain the parts of the format that work – her intelligence, her insight, her engagement with contemporary politics – while also embracing the changes to the format. Katherine rightly mocks cynical stabs at “relevance” like a “celebrity zoo” populated by animals who look like celebrities and celebrities that look like animals. However, Molly urges Katherine to understand that media is changing, and pushes her to construct “viral content” in a playful-yet-meaningful manner.

There’s something endearingly optimistic about these attempts to try to reconcile old and new media, leading to a sequence which is both self-aware and oddly affecting wherein Katherine assures the star of a young adult vampire show that her performance reminded her of the title character from Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Again, this is very much in keeping with the romantic fantasy of film and television production that drives so many of these films, but it is to the credit of Late Night that it feels earned.

The write stuff.

At the same time, all of this feels like Late Night is acknowledging its own status and its own identity. There has been a lot written and discussed about the death of the old-fashioned mid-budget movie, with romantic comedies often cited as a prime example of the sort of genre squeezed out of the market place. There is a sense in which this is obviously exaggerated, given the financial success of films like Crazy Rich Asians, but there is also some truth to it. It is hard for these sorts of old-fashioned mid-budget films to find breathing room in the current market. They can feel, like Katherine, somewhat out of touch.

The question then becomes how best to update these films, how best to get these sorts of stories told and in front of an audience and how to update them for a new era. Late Night adopts a pragmatic approach, arguing that there is nothing wrong with the format or the structure of the films, but the content simply needs updating to reflect a changing world. The Big Sick and Crazy Rich Asians are both very traditional romantic comedies, but which reflect an increasingly diverse world with a broader range of perspectives. Late Night does something similar with the familiar workplace comedy.

Late Night is a very traditional film, albeit with a decidedly modern perspective and sensibility. As Katherine Newbury learns over the course of the film, that might just be the best of all worlds.

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