Late Night

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.

Ocean’s 8

It’s been more than a decade since this franchise had an entry. The purpose of a re-boot like this is of course money, but that does not mean that there can’t be something worth watching as a result. The Three Soderbergh films were sort of a mixed bag. The first was delightful, the second one strained and lacking the light touch of the first and then the third one coming close to the first in deftness. He is an Executive Producer on this film but this is really the baby of writer/director Gary Ross. Mr. Ross has been hit or miss for me as well, penning and directing the great “Seabuscuit” and “Pleasantville”, but also writing “The Tale of Desperaux” which I wanted to love but did not. With this outing however, we are on solid ground.

Maybe it is a high concept twist to put together an all female crew to mimic the skills and character points of the male version, but for the most part it works. The plot set up is a little clunky in tying the cast to the other films, but in the long run, marketing is what got this film greenlit in the first place so it is essential from that perspective. From a story point of view, not so much. Nothing that happened in the previous films is relevant to anything that happens here. They only serve as a model for the twists and diversions a heist picture must make to create some suspense and make the film entertaining. For the most part, Ross and his team follow the template well.

There is an extended opening section where we meet the main character, Debbie Ocean, Danny’s sister. We see her being released from prison after making a persuasive plea for parole. The guards aren’t taken in because they know from first hand experience that she is still a hustler. There are several moments where we get to see her strut her stuff and establish that she is a clever thief and capable of pulling off the confidence games that are going to be part of the heist that serves as the center of the film. Sandra Bullock can play these moments effectively, and there are a couple of times when she needs to be a bit cold-hearted, she does that well too. The rest of the opening section involves recruiting the team and setting up the crime. Like the other films, we are only given enough information to keep us going in the right direction, while still being able to be surprised along the way.

The one weakness that I see in the film that is fairly obvious, is that the other members of the team are drawn in a sketchy manner. Wheras character development was a big part of the men’s version of this plot, the women end up simply reflecting some stereotypes from crime films. There is a cool counterpart played by Cate Blanchett, a mysterious hacker played by Rihanna, and a meticulous fence in Sarah Paulson.  Mindy Kaling gets the nerdy counterfeiter part and there is a street smart pick pocket. The only member of the team that really develops some character is Helena Bonham Carter, a clothing designer that gets drawn into the plot. Her part was better fleshed out than any of the other cast except Bullock.

You have to make a few allowances for heist films. Nothing ever follows the plan, that’s part of the fun, but things can’t fall into place with the degree of certainty that happens in most films of this ilk. If you can let those moments go and just sit back for the ride, you will enjoy the little treats along the way, and the song score helps as well. This is a refreshing crowd pleaser that lacks the angst of some of the bigger films out there, but it will go down well with a cold beverage on a summer night.