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Alongside film-making debuts from established actors and slow-burn word of mouth scary movies, Sundance is a festival primed for at least one crowd-pleasing comedy. In previous years, audiences and critics have roared along to Little Miss Sunshine, Happy, Texas, Juno, Patti Cake$, The Big Sick and Napoleon Dynamite. Not all of them have enjoyed such ebullience outside of Park City, though, and this year Transparent and Brooklyn Nine-Nine director Nisha Ganatra is hoping to sustain the laughter that met the premiere of her first feature, Late Night, all the way to the real world.
In a packed screening filled with critics, punters and buyers, the reaction was an undeniable win, one-liners landing with consistency leading to a frenzied bidding war, one that has reportedly been won by Amazon for a record-breaking $13m. But while the film undoubtedly plays to a large crowd, at least here at Sundance, it’s not quite the home run one would have hoped given its intriguing conception.
Inspired by her experience as the only woman in The Office writers room, Mindy Kaling has tapped into a relatively underrepresented area on screen: the difficulty of being a female comedian. For her first feature-length screenplay, Kaling has also taken the lead role as Molly, a chemical plant worker desperate to break into comedy. In a rather insanely convoluted manner, her path crosses with Katharine Newbury, played by Emma Thompson, a stalwart of the late-night talkshow scene whose program is losing ratings. She’s a self-confessed feminist and gives time on her show to women in power but has problems dealing with other women in the workplace and relies on an all-male writers room to construct her small-screen quips.
Keen to show this isn’t the case, Katharine hires Molly as a tokenistic gesture and while Molly enters with enthusiasm, she meets resistance from the men who work alongside her.
It’s a setup ripe for sharp commentary on women coexisting in a male-dominated field, and Kaling has crafted a film that feels very much in line with recent discussions over everything from #MeToo to an increased awareness of diversity both in front of and behind the camera. But while she embeds the right buzzwords, she can’t quite mold a string of interesting ideas into a convincing and fully fleshed film. She constructs a familiar framework with beats one might spot a mile off, which gives the film a comforting, hard-to-hate vibe, but one that never quite coalesces with the edgier attempts to satirise the misogynistic nature of comedy.
Thompson is a whirlwind in her role as the Miranda Priestly-esque boss, clearly relishing a rare opportunity to play a comic co-lead, firing off one-liners with great exuberance, and her skills as a dramatic actor are effortlessly employed in the final act. But her character is frustratingly inconsistent. We’re told that she has become complacent in her position and avoided covering anything too personal or political with age but simultaneously, her staffers complain that she devotes far too much time to high-ranking female politicians. She’s also a control freak, but one who hasn’t entered the writers room and got involved in the process. The attempts to save her show are also muddled, veering between interviewing Instagram celebrities and starring in viral skits to taking on the patriarchy in her monologue. The rules seem to change with every new scene and it’s tough to get a grasp on who or what anything really means.
It’s inevitable, given the set-up, that one would make comparisons to 30 Rock, the last time we spent so much time with a woman trying to deal with a mostly male writers room, and Kaling’s script does have a similar rat-a-tat rhythm, jokes falling over each other from scene to scene. But there’s far less insight and ingenuity here and Kaling is no Tina Fey, both in her writing and her on-screen charm. We’re never entirely sure of her character too and the script throws in a thinly constructed romantic subplot that should have either been excised or expanded.
Arguably the film’s biggest problem is that it’s less laugh-out-loud hilarious and more deserving of the odd casual smirk. When a film or show is detailing the evolution of jokes or skits, we have to believe the end product is a doozy and despite copious audience reaction shots, the film struggles to sell us on this. The two leads share a stage midway through the film, delivering standup to a small crowd, and it’s almost impossible to believe they wouldn’t have been promptly booed off, zingers failing to zing.
It remains a wonderful, broad opportunity for Thompson, who rarely gets such juicy chances at this stage of her career and while some of the film’s puppyish attempts to get the audience onboard do break through, it often overdoes the earnestness. While Late Night wants to be loved, instead it will have to settle for being liked.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Late Night review – Emma Thompson quips through so-so comedy | Sundance 2019