Most moviegoers will see acting legend on the big screen this weekend as the head of an organization protecting Earth from aliens in the blockbuster sequel offshoot “Men In Black: International.”
Where they should be her, however, is the underappreciated gem “Late Night,” a dramedy that sees Thompson as a late-night talk show host about to get the boot from a new network CEO just as the show hires its only female writer among an all-male staff.
The two-time Academy Award winner gives her best performance in at least five years as bullheaded comedienne Katherine Newbury, a stalwart of late-night television whose comedy tastes don’t align with modern misogynistic humor prevalent on the circuit.
Penned by talented former television writer and “Late Night” co-star Mindy Kaling, the film blends sharp tongues and wide-eyed optimism for an exceptional dramedy with a fresh point of view.
As screenwriter, Kaling trusts her audience to be smartly engaged in the quick-witted material. “Late Night” overtly and subversively satires the boys’ club mentality of popular entertainment through the lens of a talk show writers’ room.
There’s a lot of sameness prevalent across studio comedies over the past several years and although “Late Night” follows a traditional rom-com plot structure with Molly and Katherine’s friendship substituting for the love angle, Kaling’s script and Nisha Ganatra’s direction give the film a fresh perspective lacking in bigger films like “Long Shot” and “The Upside.”
Thompson’s performance early in the film delivering biting remarks with vigor resonates well with the audience and evokes Katherine’s unseen earlier stand-up work. Her prickly demeanor has a strong foundation in Thompson’s construction of the character and Kaling’s expert writing of a role she designed for the Oscar winner.
As the film progresses, Thompson tweaks Katherine’s personality to reflect how her growing unease with work and the impact Kaling’s Molly have on her.
For her own merit, Kaling wholly inhabits a character she designed as an approximation of herself. Her Molly is a naïve, yet boundlessly optimistic risktaker who finds her voice early in the film and cannot help but speak brutal honesty in the kindest, most adorable ways possible.
On her own, the performance is nothing remarkable, but in tandem with Thompson’s masterful work as Katherine, the two develop a banter of hesitant respect that evolves into admiration or mild friendship depending on the perspective that’s genuinely exciting to watch.
Their bond is complemented by Thompson’s wonderful chemistry with veteran character actor John Lithgow, who constantly steals scenes as Katherine’s longtime partner Walter. While their verbal dynamic is impressive, the amount of drama Thompson and Lithgow are able to create together in limited screen time with the words Katherine and Walter do not say to each other is equally profound.
“Late Night” finds and maintains a proper balance between lighthearted comedy and intentional drama thanks to Kaling’s nuanced screenplay brought to life with care by Ganatra.
While “bright-eyed novice works for prickly older boss” may come across as invading “The Devil Wears Prada” territory at first glance, “Late Night” changes the dynamic by making Molly and Katherine’s relationship more territorial.
“Late Night” is an incredibly smart film, almost too smart at times for its own good. Katherine’s dry witticisms and high concept humor are excellent, thought-provoking commentary that often comes at too rapid of a pace for casual audiences to keep up with.
The film hardly masks its contempt for male dominated writers’ rooms, often for the sake of humor. A consequence of this decision is an assortment of thinly written characters Molly interacts with in the workplace who all feel like different shades of the same person and are occasionally redundant to the plot.
“Late Night” comes out far too early in the year for the winning dramedy to be a serious awards contender. Its best shot lies in the original screenplay category following in the footsteps of fellow Amazon Studios film and Oscar nominee “The Big Sick.”
Thompson should also be a consideration for her fantastic character work, although the lead actress category is usually filled with more showy, dramatic performances.
Whether it’s at the nearest theater on the big screen or at home months from now exclusively on Amazon Prime, “Late Night” is a must see Friday night date movie that will resonate with audiences long after the credits roll.