Late Night provides commentary on talk show comedy that works on three levels. The film draws inspiration from several historic late-night controversies, including David Letterman coming forward about his extramarital affairs and Jay Leno being phased out of The Tonight Show. It also authentically captures the modern entertainment landscape, exploring the lack of diversity and resistance towards change. You could even argue that the film is ahead of its time in some respects. The story centers on a female late-night host when in reality late-night television has always been something of a boy’s club. With Lilly Singh taking over for Carson Daly and Samantha Bee continuing to push new boundaries, however, we’ll hopefully get to a point where female hosts are no longer a rarity.
Emma Thompson combines the sass of Joan Rivers and wit of Tracey Ullman as Katherine Newbury. The only woman to lead a long-running late-night show in broadcast history, Katherine has cemented herself as a TV legend. She’s also grown out of touch with comedy as of late, causing her ratings to take a nose dive. Katherine is told by the shrill network head (Amy Ryan) that she’s being replaced with a younger male host who seemingly went to the Dane Cook School of Humor. In a last-ditch effort to save her career, Katherine attempts to revisit her roots while also adjusting to how the world has changed. Eventually, she’s able to find her voice with some assistance from a perky new writer named Molly (Mindy Kaling).
Kaling additionally crafted the screenplay for Late Night and she brings her years of expertise writing for shows like The Office to the table. Molly is naturally the odd one out in the writer’s room, being the only minority, as well as the only woman other than Katherine. Although it doesn’t shy away from sexism and description in the workplace, Late Night doesn’t drive these themes into the ground either. Despite getting off to a rocky start, it isn’t long until Molly’s wit and determination wins many of her co-workers over. Even those who are generally unpleasant towards Molly, such as Reid Scott as the lead monologue writer, aren’t turned into one-dimensional bullies. They’re snarky and egotistical, but still capable of empathy.
That’s the key to Late Night’s success. This is a film that respects its characters, especially when it comes to the relationship between Katherine and Molly. At first, they’re dynamic is almost like something out of The Devil Wears Prada, right down to the fact that Katherine is going through a rough patch with her husband (John Lithgow). Katherine’s heart isn’t nearly as icy as Miranda Priestly’s, however, making it a bit easier for Molly to break through her defenses. The friendship they develop touches upon culture clash and the generational gap that only seems to be expanding. With Molly’s guidance, though, Katherine learns that she can adapt to the times without sacrificing her integrity.
The best way to describe Nisha Ganatra’s film is Broadcast News meets The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. She’s made a comedy with something to say, but it doesn’t relentlessly preach these ethics to the audience. Any comedian or comedienne knows that the best way to leave an impression isn’t to get on a soapbox, but to wrap your message up in a joke. For every piece of wisdom, there’s a laugh to go with it. Late Night cracks the glass ceiling while also cracking up its viewers.