‘Late Night’ Nails the Punchline

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Published July 3, 2019
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Emma Thompson plays the role of Katherine Newbury, a character with sharp wit and the ability to silence a room with a glare. Photo courtesy of Emily Aragones/Amazon Studios.

Emma Thompson is a unicorn. Her sharp wit and impeccable comedic timing have been trusted to bring life to fantastical roles like Mrs. Potts from “Beauty and the Beast,” Professor Trelawney in “Harry Potter” and most recently, the role of Katherine Newbury, a female late-night talk show host in “Late Night,” a film that Thompson described as, “basically science fiction.”

With no female hosts of nightly prime time talk shows in real life, “Late Night” is a hilarious work of science fiction that follows Newbury’s attempts to revamp her show after the network threatens to fire her. “Tonight with Katherine Newbury” has gone 30 years with an all-white, all-male writing staff until Molly Patel, played by the film’s writer Mindy Kaling, is hired merely as a public gesture of diversity and inclusion.

The film has the unique challenge of imagining a world in which a woman has helmed a late-night show for decades, and it succeeds in gracefully defining what this would look like thanks to the dynamic between Katherine and Molly. Katherine wears tailored suits and statement earrings straight out of my girl boss dreams, but she doesn’t take doe-eyed Molly under her wing right away as they attempt to breathe life back into the show.

Instead, Katherine is harsh and cold. She is resistant to having Molly on the writing staff and is motivated more by keeping her job than smashing the patriarchy. Katherine’s brash demeanor paired with Molly’s earnest optimism works to ground the film by opening up many opportunities for jokes and character growth as they both adjust to their new environment.

Katherine isn’t put up on a pedestal to show us what a perfect, progressive feminist looks like. She grapples with her actions in the post #MeToo era and makes mistakes at the expense of other people. Her traditional unlikeability and close-mindedness toward Molly also presents a feminist perspective that you don’t often see on-screen.

It’s really easy for feminist films to present all of their female characters as strong, progressive thinkers, but “Late Night” openly acknowledges that women are just as capable of prejudice and bias as men are.

Katherine learns that there is room for more than one woman at the table both figuratively and literally. Molly has to sit on an overturned trash can on her first day because there aren’t enough chairs at the writing table. Kaling’s writing is sharp and earnest, and the film is full of witty one-liners and laugh-out-loud moments.

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Mindy Kaling plays the role of Molly Patel, a lively writer who cries when she is overcome with joy and whose earnestness is described as unsettling. Photo courtesy of Emily Aragones/Amazon Studios.

The script is consistently strong, but stumbles in the explanation of how Molly was hired. Everyone knows Molly was a diversity hire, including Molly herself, but early in the film it is mentioned that she won an essay contest to get the job. Yes, Molly is new to the industry, but having her obtain a highly coveted job the same way high school seniors win scholarships undermines her talent as a writer to an extreme extent.

Molly’s brief relationship with Charlie, a fellow writer, feels forced and sloppy in comparison to the richness of other relationships in the movie. Charlie becomes a key player later in the film, and his introduction as a brief and underwhelming romantic interest felt irrelevant to his later developments. The plot wraps up nicely at the end of the film however, so these minor inconsistencies along the way do not detract from the movie as a whole.

With fiercely talented women like Mindy Kaling and Emma Thompson attached to the film, I had high hopes for “Late Night.” It exceeded my expectations by making me laugh out loud while also considering different aspects of feminism and equality. This science fiction film about women in comedy was great, but I think we can all agree that having more women in real life late-night television would be even better.

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