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In Late Night, Emma Thompson is in full bloom

directed by Nisha Ganatra

Emma Thompson is a joy to behold as an acerbic and charming talk-show host.

Many a director has tried to tame Emma Thompson. Button her down, stuff her into corsets, disfigure her with a monobrow, but still that imperiousness proves irrepressible. What a joy to find, in Late Night, Thompson not tamped down, but in full withering, blood-curdling bloom.

She plays Katherine Newbury, a British expat comedian who long ago conquered the peculiar US world of late-night TV talk shows (think David Letterman, Craig Ferguson et al). Before the camera, Katherine presents an immaculately tailored picture of rakish ironic charm. Behind it, she is icily acerbic and lashes anyone who dares approach her. So cathartic are her put-downs that if Late Night consisted entirely of Thompson rudely insulting people, I’d lap it up.

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Yet ratings are falling, with her show’s complacent and entirely male writing staff churning out tediously safe one-liners. Rumours hint that Katherine might be replaced. Into this world stumbles aspiring comic Molly, played by Mindy Kaling, who also wrote the film. Maligned as a “diversity hire” for the writers’ room, Molly must first prove her worth, and then – perhaps a little implausibly – rescue the entire show.

Kaling’s script is a stampede of jokes, many of them decent, some contrived and indulging too many zeitgeisty buzzwords. Towards the end, Late Night starts to become bloated with ideas picked up then left unexamined: the price of success, Katherine’s depression, the plight of her husband (John Lithgow) struggling with Parkinson’s. One wonders if an episodic format, such as the Tina Fey series 30 Rock, might have been a better vehicle for all the themes Kaling is trying to tackle.

Then again, Kaling astutely navigates the battle lines of modern comedy. Confronted with an old guard of white men who believe they should be able to get away with sneering at those perceived to be beneath them, Kaling skilfully and with great glee points out that comedy need not lose its bite or edge. The wounded howl of the old boys’ club, she points out, is that of a group with nothing left to fight for.

For a film set in a rarefied world of sensible chuckles and pre-programmed laugh tracks, Late Night proves to be disarming and incisive. As Katherine signs off her show each night: “I hope I’ve earned the privilege of your time.” She sure has.



Video: Roadshow Films NZ

This article was first published in the August 17, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.