GREG'S GRADE: C-
In a crucial scene of "Late Night," long-running talk show host Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) takes the stage for an impromptu stand-up set and — initially, at least — bombs horribly. The awkward, uncomfortable vibe that quickly fills the room — equal parts disappointment and pity — is emblematic of the film as a whole.
"Late Night" is a movie about comedy that isn't funny. Granted, parts of it aren't going for laughs, as we're told over and over again that "Tonight with Katherine Newbury," on the air since 1991, has been a bad show for the past decade. And the bits we see of it surely back that up.
But allegedly there's a turnaround, largely due to the influence of Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling), who's brought on as a diversity hire in a writers' room full of white men. We have to take the movie's word for it, though, because laughs are just as hard to come by when this occurs.
Everyone blames the show's decline on Katherine's old-fashioned, out-of-touch attitude. But through a combination of direction, writing and performance, that writers' room is a miserable place to be — for the writers themselves and us as viewers. Yes, it's obviously a tense working environment — most of the writers have never even met Katherine, and the stage is strictly off limits to all but a select few — but the actors, including pros like Hugh Dancy and Reid Scott, seem even more uncomfortable than their characters. There is no energy or rhythm to these scenes — or any other scene in the movie — and everyone seems to be simply waiting for their turn to speak rather than engaging the material and their fellow performers.
Director Nisha Ganatra is a TV veteran — her credits include episodes of "Girls," "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" and "The Last Man on Earth" — so maybe the larger scope of a feature was too unwieldy for her to shape into a cohesive whole. Perhaps Kaling, as the screenwriter, also struggled with that, as Katherine is the only character even remotely fleshed out.
To be fair, the movie takes Katherine on a sufficient character arc that includes a complicated relationship with her ailing husband (John Lithgow). As for the rest, even Molly essentially is a blank slate beyond her background working in quality control at a chemical plant and fan-girl adoration of Katherine. Where does her deep love for comedy come from? How does the "diversity hire" label make her feel?
While Kaling is a bright, charming presence on screen, and Thompson is incapable of being anything other than excellent at this stage of her career, "Late Night" pulls its punches, squandering a setup that seems ripe with rich comedic and dramatic potential.
Rated R for language throughout and some sexual references. 102 minutes.
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