Confessional reform of abrasive talk show hostess

Confessional reform of abrasive talk show hostess Emma Thompson stars in Late Night. Photo Credit: Emily Aragones / Variety.com
LateNight(15A)

I’ve often wondered when they’d get around to doing a millennial version of Sidney Lumet’s Network. Here it’s crossed with The Devil Wears Prada. It’s the story of how Katie Hopkins becomes Ellen DeGeneres, how Margaret Thatcher becomes Theresa May.

Emma Thompson is misogynistic chat show hostess Katherine Newbury, a televisual dinosaur. She’s political incorrectness personified, a woman who talks at you instead of to you. She’s been getting away with it for decades but now the long knives are out. The Youtube generation is catching up on her.

Her ratings are falling. Her boss wants her head on a plate. Then she becomes embroiled in a sex scandal.

Her humanisation comes about through default. This dilutes its cathartic element.

The film moves in fits and starts. She makes a few stabs at reformation early on but then reverts into her more customary sniping. I liked that about it. Life mirrors such inconsistency.

The downside is that we feel we’re constantly being thrown narrative curve balls. Twice, for instance, she fires the “diversity hire” comedy writer Molly (Mindy Kaling). Molly is ethnic and a woman – two things that have formerly been anomalous within the waspish all-male milieu over which Katherine has presided since Adam was a (white) boy.

For a comedy writer I only recall hearing two of Molly’s jokes in the film. Where are the rest of them? When she’s fired the first time she doesn’t seem to mind but when Newbury tells her she’s surplus to requirements the second time she goes into a meltdown. This kind of inconsistency rankles.

Newbury lacks a heart most of the time. The effort of director Nisha Ganatra to give her one in the last reel is perhaps too little too late. Her relationship to her husband (a Parkinsons disease-afflicted John Lithgow) is also under-developed.

Thompson’s most endearing quality has always been her likeability. There’s not enough of that in evidence here to make the film hum. And can we really believe she hasn’t met her writers despite working in the same building as them for 27 years?

The fact that the film can intrigue and amuse us for 100 minutes despite these stumbling blocks is a tribute not only to Ganatra but also to Kaling’s script.

A panegyric to writers themselves, those fifth wheels of most aspects of the arts, it fizzes with quotable quotes.

Some of you might find it too smart-alecky (or vulgar) but it captures the dog-eat-dog world of TV to a ‘t’. If Newbury is a reincarnated Howard Beale (the deranged prophet of Network), she’s a cold-blooded version of him. For a comedic performer she lacks humour – unless it’s of the iconoclastic variety.

Maybe this is where humour is at today. Maybe it’s where it’s always been at. Whatever, Ganatra and Kaling nail it.

This will make Late Night very appealing to a generation weaned on the laceration of sacred cows.

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FILM: ‘Late Night’

Release Date: June 7, 2019. Running time: 102 MIN.

DIRECTOR: Nisha Ganatra

PRODUCTION: Producers: Mindy Kaling, Howard Klein, Ben Browning, Jillian Apfelbaum. Executive producers: Alison Cohen, Milan Popelka, Micah Green, Daniel Steinman.

CREW: Director: Nisha Ganatra. Screenplay: Mindy Kaling. Camera (color): Matthew Clark. Editors: Eleanor Infante, David Rogers. Music: Lesley Barber.

WITH: Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, Amy Ryan, John Lithgow, Max Casella, Hugh Dancy, Ike Barinholtz

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Very Good: ★ ★ ★ ★

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