J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, February 03, 2019

Sundance ’19: Late Night


Let’s face it, late night talk show hosts are much more entertaining when they are mired in rivalries and scandal (as in Letterman vs. Leno and Leno vs. Team Coco). After years of hosting her show on auto-pilot, Katherine Newbury is about to become interesting again—maybe too interesting. The show may not necessarily go on in Nisha Ganatra’s Late Night, which premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

Apparently, Newbury’s show debuted in the early 1990s, which would make her the second woman to host a national late night talk show, after Joan Rivers, but screenwriter Mindy Kaling gives Newbury credit as the first. In recent years, Newbury has been content to lob softball questions to guests she admires, like Sen. Diane Feinstein. Big surprise, ratings are down.

Viewership has fallen to such a low level, the new network president is ready to replace Newbury with someone younger and more popular. However, Newbury might just put up a fight, but first she has her long-suffering producer hire a woman writer to defuse some negative press. Molly Patel is the only applicant who fits the bill, so the underdog chemical plant employee gets the gig. It will be highly debatable whether this constitutes good or bad luck for Patel, but at least she will spur her prickly boss to start addressing more political topics, because most Americans’ idea of fun is a political lecture from someone who think they are more virtuous than they are. Regardless, Newbury’s ratings rebound, until a personal scandal threatens to end her career.

A lot of the behind-the-scenes chaos in Late Night is amusing, but the film is little more than an extended episode of Murphy Brown. Emma Thompson scores some big laughs as the witheringly acerbic, borderline-abusive talk show host, but she never looks comfortable in her stand-up scenes. That might sound like a minor quibble, but it makes it difficult to believe her character could reach this position in the first place.

Probably, the sharpest, most consistently funny performance comes from Denis O’Hare as Newbury’s long-suffering producer. Kaling is relatively likable as Patel, at least when she is not giving us lectures on social issues. By far, her best scenes involve her evolving relationships with Newbury show staffers, including O’Hare, Max Casella, and Paul Walter Hauser. However, the best performance comes from John Lithgow, who is achingly dignified as Newbury’s ailing husband, an NYU professor emeritus.

There is really nothing in Late Night you haven’t seen before, but Amazon paid $13 million for it anyway. Perhaps they intend to turn it into a sitcom, which is really the level Kaling is pitching her material. Mostly harmless but sometimes insufferably smug, Late Night is wildly overrated. Just an okay time-killer, Late Night screens again tonight (2/3) in Salt Lake, as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

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