Before I talk about the film, let me discuss a subject that has come up recently for which this movie was used as a prime example. The claim is that comedy on the big screen is dying. There was some data analytics applied and shows that comedies in the U.S. went from 25% of the Box office in 2009 to 8% last year, with only one breaking the $100 million mark. Several recent misfires at the box office have also been mentioned, including “Long Shot“, POMS, and “Booksmart“. The culprit according to the articles I have read, is on-line streaming. People have warmed to the idea that comedy is for home consumption and spectacle is for the theater. “Late Night” appears to be another in a line of failures to launch at the box office. I can’t dismiss the theory out of hand, but I can say that one of the reasons “Late Night” faltered is marketing. I saw no print advertising, or Television promotion for this movie and only spotty info on the web. If you want an example of how lazy the effort was to get people into a theater, look at the poster below. Amazon Studios treated the film as one of their streaming productions that they deign to put into theaters. The new system of film releases and the rise of on-line film streaming may very well change the culture in ways we are uncertain about. This movie however is being written off and that’s a pity.
This is basically “The Devil Wears Prada” set in the world of late night comedy on television rather than in the fashion industry. That film features an older actress playing a stern figure who needs an assist from some new blood. Emma Thompson plays the Meryl Streep part and Mindy Kaling gets to be Anne Hathaway. Which is fine since she wrote the usually witty screenplay herself. Thompson’s character is stuck in the mud and does not seem willing to deal with it because of her difficult personality. She also has a home life that is complicated by an unwell souse and a lack of other friends and family. She tells the jokes well and conveys the gyro-scoping professional conflicts well. As the over confident and then overwhelmed neophyte writer on the comedy staff, Kaling gives herself a wide range of emotions to play but it is a little schizophrenic at times as to whether she is cock sure or cockamamie.
All comedies will have weak moments in them and this is no exception. The trash bag and trash can jokes you can see in the trailer are indicative of some of the weaknesses. This is not a slapstick and putting those in detracts from the more clever things that are working in the film. The near incestuous elitism of the writing staff is mocked very effectively both verbally and visually. The insular nature of the room does seem to be a problem in the late night shows woes but clearly the bigger problem is the attitude of the host. We are supposed to believe that a quarter of a century into the digital age of media, and all of the comedic life of the character, Kate, the host of the show, doesn’t make jokes or references to this environment. That is a big disbelief to overcome. It’s easy to see the perspective of Kaling as a comedy writer struggling in the monochromatic cultural canvas she has had to work in, but even old timers like Leno and Letterman understood that comedy has to flow from the events of the real world. Twitter, You Tube and Facebook are where that world is being consumed these days. So the premise is a bit smug to start with.
It is also a little inconsistent to mock a modern comedian for the use of poop jokes as you are in the process of making them yourself. Kaling is at least brave enough to include a reasonable retort to a feminist argument made by the host toward a member of the male writing staff, even though it gets dismissed not with an argument but by resorting to being in a position of power. The power dynamic is dysfunctional not because of anyone’s skin color or gender, but because of their accomplishment and that seems to undermine some of the themes that she is trying to make in the script. For a film with the goal of being subversive, it is conventional right down to the tacked on, though sublte romance in the conclusion.
If it sounds like I am being overly critical, I just want to point out those things that stood in the way of everything else that worked so well. Kaling’s character is funny as heck and the situations are usually humorous and accurate. Thompson is especially good and if Meryl deserved her nomination for “Prada”, then if there is justice, Emma will be getting her certificate of participation early next year as well. This is an experience that would be well served by sharing it with a theater full of strangers willing to laugh out loud. I did several times but it is hard for something to be contagious when the theater feels like an isolation ward with very few patients.