Sundance 2019: Late Night

Emma Thompson appears in Late Night by Nisha Ganatra, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. Photo by Emily Aragones.

Late Night is a hysterically funny film that puts the spotlight on women in a comedy industry on television that is predominantly male.

Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) is the host of Tonight with Katherine.  In the film’s universe, Katherine the only late night talk show host who is female and has her own show.  She’s won many awards over the years and the film starts as the Brit becomes the first foreigner to take home an American award.  All of this said, what takes place in the building of her show puts her in a pickle.  It turns out that not only does she not know the names of her writers–all men–but she doesn’t even bother to attend their meetings.  Not just this but this “women who hates woman” isn’t doing her best to appeal to millennial viewers.

Fixing Katherine’s problems won’t be easy but the secret weapon comes in the form of Pennsylvania factory worker Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling).  Molly is what we in the comedy industry would refer to as a comedy nerd.  She’s seen all of Katherine’s routines, episodes, and comedy specials.  She just so happens to win a contest that allows her to meet with any executive.  Her executive of choice just so happens to be Brad (Denis O’Hare), the producer and #1 to Katherine.  Given Katherine’s reputation, it’s not going to be an easy task.  Gabe was just fired as a writer because he wanted a raise to help feed his family.  Molly is lucky in that she doesn’t have a family but there’s a bigger question of whether this diversity hire will be the fix.

Hiring Molly seems to be the least of Katherine’s problems because network president Caroline Morton (Amy Ryan) wants to replace her.  The replacement of choice is comedian Daniel Tennant (Ike Barinholtz).  With an increasing pressure to save her show, Katherine decides that she needs to put things in working order.  This is where bringing in Molly for fresh ideas just might be able to save the show.  To do so, other members of the writing staff need to be able to work with her.  This includes monologue writer Tom Campbell (Reid Scott), stand-up/writer Charlie Fain (Hugh Dancy), Reynolds (John Early), and Mancuso (Paul Walter Hauser), among others.

This is a film that features a lot of top-notch talent in front of the camera.  It’s been so long since any film has brought us inside a comedy writing room.  This is where screenwriter Mindy Kaling brings her own experiences from working as a writer for The Office.  It may not have been a late night series but it helps to provide somewhat of a perspective.  This experience helps to deliver a smartly written script that feels so timely and relevant.

What makes Late Night so fascinating is that up until a few years ago, there were zero females who were hosting late night comedy talk shows.  Even now, very few women host their own late night shows but none of them are airing four to five days a week.  The last one to do so was Chelsea Lately on E!  Taking a look at the main broadcast networks, all of their late night television series are hosted by men.  Interestingly enough, the logo for Tonight with Katherine looks eerily similar to that of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert on CBS.

Moreover, several of the late night writing rooms of the past were predominantly male.  This even includes The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.  Just as Morton does in the film, Stewart himself was called out for the lack of female writers.  Hell, you would have been lucky to find such a series with diversity on staff.  This is the beauty of this film.  Not only do we have a woman over the age of 50 leading it but the co-lead is an Indian woman of color.  Behind the camera is Nisha Ganatra, another woman of Indian descent.  This isn’t something that one traditionally finds on such a series.  While there’s been a push for diversity, things are changing but aren’t there yet.

Men have been known to say that women aren’t funny but thanks to Ganatra, Kaling, and Thompson, Late Night proves just the opposite.

DIRECTOR:  Nisha Ganatra
CAST:  Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, Max Casella, Hugh Dancy, John Lithgow, Denis O’Hare, Reid Scott, Ike Barinholtz, John Early, Paul Walter Hauser, Amy Ryan

Late Night held its world premiere during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival in the Premieres section. Grade: 5/5

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.

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