Late Night is a film so affable and so relentlessly competent that I spent a full day after screening it trying to convince myself that I liked it.
I didn’t dislike it. It struck me as being the perfect sort of movie to watch on an airplane or a treadmill monitor. You only have to half pay attention. One or two of its jokes are funny enough to make you laugh. But the film never generates any traction or momentum. It never builds on its characters or examines its situations. As a result, none of its jokes land with any force, and its pro-diversity message is undercut by its inability to show us rather than simply tell us that diversity is good.
Mindy Kaling, who also wrote the screenplay, portrays Molly Patel, a factory worker who becomes an affirmative-action hire as a writer at a late night talk show hosted by the legendary Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson). There are a number of paths down which the film could proceed from that set up, and it takes faltering steps down each of them rather than developing any one. It could go The Big Sick route and play the ethnic differences for laughs. It could go The Devil Wears Prada route and juxtapose women at the top and bottom of the professional ladder in order to comment about how much progress they have (or have not) made and what the cost of that progress is for the women in a specific industry. It could even have tried to be a latter-day Mary Tyler Moore show, allowing the normal woman to be our peephole into a comedic workplace menagerie of oddballs. Ultimately, though, its indecision about how it wanted to be funny and what it wanted to be funny about ended up squandering some good performances.
There were two precise moments where the movie lost me, first as a comedy and then as a social commentary.
About half-way through the film, Molly finally nudges Katherine into doing some jokes about women and the appalling ways they are treated in the entertainment industry (and the society at large). Katherine delivers a hardly-fresh but still genuinely funny zinger about how the only movie role she would be cast in is that of Sean Penn’s grandmother in the movie where he is dating Emma Stone. The joke itself is the sort of low-hanging fruit that the film should be able to pluck any time for a quick laugh — something that reinforces the the theme of gender disparity rather than standing in for the argument in its entirety. Still, it’s delivered well by Thompson and gets a reaction…which is then instantly undercut by the screenplay having Katherine explain the joke. She is only seven years older than Sean Penn…he is significantly older than Emma Stone…oh, is that why I was laughing? The joke itself is funny because it engenders a “that’s so true” response, but then it undercuts itself by assuming most of the audience won’t get it and turns itself into a feminist lecture rather than a lament. I’ll once again paraphrase E. B. White, probably not for the last time: explaining jokes is like dissecting frogs…the one thing you can be sure of is that the frog will be dead at the end of it.
The other moment where the film lost me was at the very last scene. Here’s my attempt at a non-spoilerish summary: we get a “One Year Later” intertitle followed by a depiction of how the characters and their collective situation have changed. But it’s a bit of a cheat because it asserts the positive influence of diversity (for which the film and its characters have been arguing the whole movie) without actually showing it. Much like how Finding Forrester spent the whole movie telling you that its characters were great writers only to retreat to montage when it came time to exemplify their great writing, Late Night spends the whole movie having its characters tell us (and each other) that workplaces would be healthier and better if they had more diversity only to retreat to ellipsis when it comes time to exemplify what healthier and better (or funnier) actually look like.
I get that it is easier to write that people are funny than to write people being funny. But to that I assert that a film that consistently tells me that its characters are hilarious is actually less entertaining than one which intermittently shows me its characters being moderately amusing.