Late Night (2019) Movie Review

Last week I saw a preview showing of Late Night, an R-rated movie about late night television, opening in limited release this weekend and wide release next weekend. Emma Thompson plays Katherine Newbury, a white, middle-aged English talk show host who never had a female writer on her all-male writing staff. Mindy Kaling, the writer and producer for Late Night, plays Molly Patel, a woman of color who becomes the first female writer for the show. What could possibly go wrong in this comedy-drama? Quite a bit.

The first thing you may notice when watching Late Night is that Amazon Studios is behind this movie. They bought the distribution rights for $13 million USD after Late Night premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. Late Night is the first of ten titles that Amazon Studios will bring out to theaters in 2019. I’ve seen one reviewer mistakenly refer to Late Night as an Amazon Prime video. Then again, who knew that Amazon was in the film distribution business?

Late Night opens and closes with Katherine Newbury walking up to the studio camera to deliver her monologue. Craig Ferguson did that for his monologue on The Late Late Show on CBS, getting up close to his audience and talking in front of the studio camera. Every other late-night host does the long-distance camera shot of walking out to the middle of the stage for their monologue.

You can tell that this movie was made on a budget since the distance from curtain to studio camera is short, the musicians are standing up against a nearby wall, and the studio audience is always the same people.

The head of the television network informs Katherine that she is being replace after the season with a younger white male comedian whose material is edgier.  Changing the host of a late-night television show can be a source of great drama in real life. The most notable example was Johnny Carson retiring from The Tonight Show after 30 years in 1992. Carson wanted David Letterman from Late Night to replace him. But NBC signed up Jay Leno instead, and Letterman moved to CBS to start The Late Show in the same time slot as The Tonight Show.

As panic settles in, Katherine meets with her writing team to jump start her show. She fires several writers out of hand for disagreeing with her and assigns numbers to the rest since she doesn’t know their names. If that wasn’t bad enough to put the writers on edge, Molly joins as the first female writer and becomes writer number eight.

Molly’s previous job was in quality control at a chemical plant. She won a contest to meet any executive in the company and used that opportunity to meet a network executive at the parent corporation to arrange for an interview at The Katherine Newbury Show. That’s like someone at a chemical plant owned by Comcast asking to see a NBC executive to arrange an interview at The Tonight Show.

The writing staff tries a lot of different ideas to see what sticks. One idea was to show off old and new media by interviewing an up-and-coming YouTuber, Zoe Martlin, played by Halston Sage of The Orville, who made her claim to fame by doing dog videos. That goes downhill in hurry when Katherine asks Zoe why she didn’t make cat videos. YouTube in the early days was well known for cat videos. Zoe unleashes a lecture on why old media needed new media before walking off the stage, leaving Katherine perplexed by the sudden change in attitude.

After Katherine revives her show by embracing her white privilege for edgier comedy, she sabotages her future replacement from getting her job. Not surprisingly, hacked emails from a male writer whom she had an affair with appears in the press. That writer leaves the show and leaves the other writers uncertain how to proceed. She believes that the scandal would doom her chances of saving her career and her marriage, sending her off on an emotional roller coaster. With forgiveness from her husband, played by John Lithgow, who is suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, she makes a confession in the monologue of her show. The scandal becomes a minor speed bump to successfully reviving the show.

I found this part of the movie very interesting, as David Letterman went through a similar episode ten years ago. He confessed his affairs with female staffers on the air after a CBS employee tried to blackmail him for $2 million USD. The studio audience thought he was joking until it became clear that he was being serious. He went to the district attorney’s office, the police set up a sting operation, and the person was arrested and later sentenced to six months in jail and five years of probation. I don’t think Letterman suffered any long-term consequences after his public confession. If he made that confession in the era of #metoo, he probably wouldn’t have a job.

Late Night is the kind of movie where I listen to the audience to see what they laugh at. Most romantic comedies, or chick flicks, are usually hit and miss when it comes to audience laughter. A bad movie would have 25% of the audience laughing, and an average movie would be 50%. The audience laughter in Late Night was consistent throughout the whole movie. The last movie that I saw with that much audience laughter was Julie & Julia with Meryl Streep and Amy Adams in 2009.

This blog post is not a paid promotion even though AMC and Gofobo provided two free tickets for a friend and I to see Late Night before it opens to the general public. Gofobo is a website that offers free tickets by invitation to see preview screenings of the newest movies. I’m under no obligation to make this video and Gofobo provided no editorial guidance for this video.