Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) is that rarest of things – a female late night talkshow host. She’s been doing the show for years and is starting to get stale. Because of her career she’s sacrificed any social life, and her standard response to conflict at work is to sack anyone who contradicts her.
Molly (Mindy Karling) is the newest member of Katherine’s writing staff. Molly is a “diversity hire” who was hired after someone pointed out that Katherine’s writing room is entirely male and white. Molly is effervescent and speaks her mind, and, well I guess you know where we’re going here.
Late Night is well acted, it contains a number of funny lines and makes a number of pertinent points about how stultifying institutional sexism and racism can be. At the same time, it is predictable, formulaic and way too safe. You end up enjoying individual scenes, but it never quite coheres as a whole.
I guess the biggest problem is that for a film about comedy, its just not funny enough. Its perfectly fine at depicting both the occasionally amusing sketches that reach the final show, and the crazy ideas that get jettisoned because they just don’t work. Its also good in its portrayal of Katherine’s nemesis, and up-and-coming “edgy” comic who’s act appeals to the xenophonia and bigotry that he assumes its audience to hold.
But the film is trying to make the radical – and welcome – statement that edgy comedy doesn’t have to appeal to the lowest denominator. You can be witty and punch up. Yet in practise, we only really see this sort of humour in one joke that’s sort of about abortion.
The film takes care to let us know that Katherine used to be a challenging comedian, who has been coasting it a bit for the past decade. But then we catch Molly watching a video of one of Katherine’s old shows. Like the rest of the film its only moderately funny, containing for example jokes about schizophrenics that are both obvious and medically insensitive and inaccurate.
Katherine is intelligent – and if you want someone to play intelligent, you can’t do much better than Emma Thompson – but she’s rarely witty. She despises the reality tv stars that she has to interview, but its unclear whether this is because she’s cultured or just a snob. Towards the end, when she’s supposed to be on the path towards a better person, she visits Molly’s flat in Brooklyn and cannot conceive that anyone could live like this. Well, Molly’s flat, and the surrounding area, look nicer than where I live.
This all means that the catharsis that we’re supposed to get at the end of the film doesn’t really work. The film fast forwards a year, and Katherine’s office is full of women and people of colour. Yet we don’t get the sense that the form or the contact of her act has significantly changed. I mean its great that the film takes up the shocking discrimination in cultural jobs, but really doesn’t take on the complacent ideas that sustain unambitious comedy shows.
Thus one of the key scenes of the film is the revelation that Katherine had an affair. It was all a long time ago but Katherine is insistent that the main sin isn’t that women who sleep around are treated differently to men, but that any affair is inherently wrong. You can’t disrupt the sanctity of the family.
Some of this latent conservatism seeps into the form of the film. Katherine can’t remember the names of her writers so gives each of them a number. Yes, the very same joke that House did, all those years ago. And, unlike House, none of the nasty characters is really bad, just a little misguided. Even the evil corporate executive who wants to replace Katherine with her nemesis turns out in the end to be a comedy fan who just wanted Katherine’s act to improve a little.
I hate to labour these points, because the film was perfectly adequate. But if you really want to take on issues this important, is being perfectly adequate enough?