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    LATE NIGHT (Nisha Ganatra 2019)



    New TV

    Late Night is a message comedy. Can there be such a thing? No doubt. Anyway we're going to be getting lots of them. #MeToo is so dominant now in the culture Emily Nussbaum recently wrote a survey of new TV in The New Yorker entirely from this point of view, showing nearly every current show has grown a conscious #MeToo angle, even my beloved "high Maintenance," and even if doing this is often a struggle for them (it may be a struggle for some audience members too). Given this reality, obviously Late Night was not written by its writer and co-star, Mindy Kaling, for an older white man like me. (But is anything?)

    Kaling is a young Indian American actress, comic, and writer: thus she is a (young-ish) female person of color and child of immigrants. (She's also not svelte, an added diversity bonus, if an unmentionable one. But why unmentioned? ) The movie is about getting rid of a white male-dominated point of view on television, as represented by a "late night" talk show, by focusing on doing so and hiring new staff. This happens eventually; the process takes most of the movie, because the talk show host's own reformation has to take place too.

    This is a feminist film and a political one about the positive value of diversity hires and it presents as its lead figure in need of reform - here's the twist - not a white male, but a hidebound white alpha female, longtime evening talk show host Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) who reforms to save her dying show by hiring as a new writer a woman of color, Molly (writer-costar Mindy Kaling) and eventually getting rid of her all-white male set of writers, getting a more diverse set of them and becoming more successful, and (the icing on the cake!) turning into a better, warmer, more honest person as a result of the new outlook she acquires.

    This is charming and not unintelligent, but it can't help but appear to the jaundiced (or "male gaze") eye as a bit of a wish-fulfillment fantasy, as far as the Emma Thompson part is concerned. Well, actually it's totally skewed in its use of both leads. Of course for an ideal audience member, such as the young Indian-born, American-resident film writer Devika Girish, who wrote enthusiastically and at length about Late Night in Film Comment recently, all this is simply " a wondrous alternate reality."

    A recent PBS interview revealed, not surprisingly, that Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling are both very happy with the lead character of Emma Thompson, and equally pleased with the induced self-improvement trajectory of the screenplay, induced, that is, by the constant up front urging of the irrepressible Molly. They're eager to insist that Thompson's late night show host or (hostess, if female forms are still allowed) is absolutely not "bitchy and cold" as some have assumed.

    This is a problem, because Emma Thompson just naturally comes off as bitchy and cold (charmingly and elegantly so), and because we like her that way. It's what makes her character fun, a guilty pleasure, if you will, to watch. Katherine is a nuanced character, and not at all a crudely satirical one. Kaling has admitted that Emma Thompson's character is a fantasy creation, since late night talk shows hosting is a man's game. A female one who's lasted thirty years is doubly unlikely. She was chosen for two arbitrary reasons, first because Kaling did not want to write about an old white man.

    That this host is not only also an Englishwoman but one with a posh accent (again doubly unlikely), is all explained by one thing Kaling revealed in the interview (and one might have suspected). She simply had been wanting to write a role for Emma Thomson most of her life because Thompson is her favorite actor. Of course, the two most successful (daytime) female talk show hosts have been (1) African American (Oprah Winfrey) and (2) lesbian (Ellen Degeneres, whose look Katherine somewhat follows, with a nod to Joan Rivers). So why would we assume that Katherine Newbury's personal reformation and career rebirth contain any elements of truth? They're a happy dream. Only, wish fulfillment fits a little uncomfortably with the dry, witty comedy of the first half of the movie and the dry, witty lead. Molly tells Katherine she mustn't do ironic double-takes any more and Katherine says, "that's just my face." It feels as though Kaling has tried to turn an utterly English actress into an American character. Katherine's reform, the earnest, super-sincere side of it, just isn't an English thing.

    Katherine isn't cold and bitchy, Kaling says. She's just firm. Okay. But watch how briskly she fires people. In this is the wish-fulfillment of getting rid of privileged men not just firmly, but with a punishingly brutal rapidity. Is it justified to be inhumane to people just because you think they've enjoyed unfair privilege? In some cases, perhaps yes. Is it funny? In the way the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland is funny with her "Off with his head" style rapid-fire dismissals of the show's staff members: Katherine is fun, but she's neither admirable nor likable. And so it's a bit hard to like her after her reformation, or believe in its new warmness.

    It is true she is not completely cold and cruel earlier. She is saved from that by having a loving relationship with John Lithgow's retired husband with Parkinson's disease, who stays home, sitting still, providing unfailingly loving encouragement to Katherine on the telephone, or playing the piano. His keyboard skill seems fanciful for a Parkinson's patient; he is a useful token and fantasy. Is this Kaling's ideal male partner? (Two - very slightly - less stereotypical, perhaps more likely, males are provided in the form of a couple of the writers, played by Hugh Dancy and Reid Scott, who date or flirt with Molly for a while in what Slate's Heather Schwedel calls "Dumb Romantic Subplots.")

    Most of the film is a showcase for Mindy Kaling. Molly, her character, is even more implausible than Katherine Newbury - except that Kaling herself was a diversity hire on "The Office" and has excelled there, as Molly excels on "Late Night with Katherine Newbury." But admittedly, Mindy did not dominate and make over "The Office" as her character immediately dominates and makes over "Late Night with Katherine Newbury." This is a Walter Mitty fantasy for Mindy. Of course that's fine. Comedy is often fantastic. Only it can be more subtly instructive when it's closer to reality. But Emma Thompson is fun to watch and Mindy Kaling's energy and wit are infectious.

    The most uplifting part of the film is not any of the scenes or the dialogue but a brief shot of the later table of writers hired by the new Katherine, where we can gather there are mostly women, Asians, and people of color on hand, and it really does look - diverse, a group that could come up with fresh ideas for comedy. But it's a little hard to see comedy as a place for earnestness and reform. Isn't comedy traditionally a medium for frivolity, and reinforcing traditional values? This movie is perhaps better not even seen as primarily either satire or comedy, though it has a number of witty, amusing moments. Could one have hoped for more?

    Late Night, 102 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2019. It showed in about three other fests (Montclair, Sundance London, Inside Out). It entered US cinemas June 14, 2019. Metascore 71%.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 06-16-2019 at 07:09 PM.


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