Dancing along the fine line that separates cliche and sclerotic trope-ism, and heartfelt, engaging storytelling, takes a deft way with words, an ability to give breath to fully-realised characters and someone who gets the contrary depths and heights of humanity.
Not everybody possesses such a laudable grab bag of talents and the wherewithal to express them with vivacious meaning but Mindy Kaling, who writes and stars in Late Night, is one such person who is insightful enough to cast Emma Thompson to act opposite her, a masterstroke that elevates still further what is at heart an often moving, whipsmart funny piece of cinema.
Lay the plot bare and you could be forgiven for wondering just how many envelopes Late Night actually pushes.
It is, in many ways, a story we have seen plenty of times before.
Ambitious but goodhearted newcomer, with no real experience to speak of but plenty of dreams and a wicked way with persuasive selling of herself, talks her way into her perfect job, aided by the fact that the person doing the hiring is desperate for anyone who is not male and white, stung by recent criticism that she is past it and stuck in a finely-woven has-been web of her own making.
Thus it is that Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling), fresh from her job at head of quality control at a Pennsylvanian chemical plant (not factory, thank you; it’s a recurring joke in the film that speaks to our need to put lipstick on pigs to salve our often-fragile egos) lands a job writing for Tonight with Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson), a late night talk show host with almost 30 years in the job who has grown complacent in her old age and keeps serving up the same old stuff night after non-viral video-generating night.
At least, that’s the damning accusation levelled at her by hardcore network president Caroline Morton (Amy Ryan) who informs Newbury that this year will be her last, with the show’s hosting gig going to trash can comedian Daniel Tennant (Ike Barinholtz) who is supposedly, jokes about shitting in shoes and all, going to be a hit with the treasured younger, Snapchat-ing demo.
Newbury, who has all the warmth and people person charisma of The Devil Wears Prada‘s Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) and doesn’t even realise her favourite writer died seven years earlier from cancer, is gutted, her entire world, or rather, almost her entire world, resting on being the queen of her talk show realm.
What gives Newbury some necessary but utterly transcendent humanity, and plays a key role, along with some deliciously-clever dialogue feints, in taking a well-worn storyline and making it feel freshly heartfelt, is her deeply-affectionate relationship with husband Walter (John Lithgow), the only position with whom she allows herself to be brittle and vulnerable.
To everyone else, she is a tough network longstayer, someone of short temper and long trenchant demands, a boss who calls everyone by randomly-assigned numbers – learning names is too difficult and a waste of her better-used time – but with Walter, oh with Walter she is soft, pliable, a woman in love with the man of her dreams.
Her marriage is, she admits, the only other thing besides her show that the friend-less show host has invested time and effort into, and watching how affectionately two gifted actors such as Thompson and Lithgow bring this pivotal relationship, to touching, wholly-affecting life – if you don’t sigh at some point when the two are on screen, there is a fair chance you are a robot with a heart of concrete – almost makes Late Night.
It’s not that Molly’s rise and rise, and fall, and rise – no spoilers there; in that respect, this is filmmaking by the numbers – isn’t something you can invest in, in some way; but it feels like something we have seen before.
It’s brilliantly, near-flawlessly executed, thanks to Kaling’s twin talents as a consummately good writer and pitch-perfect actor, but it is a retread of sorts and isn’t enough on its own to make you sit up and take notice.
But it’s watching Newbury relate to Walter, the only person with whom she lets down her prickly guard, is a thing of joy and release, while also serving as an instructive note on what it takes for a woman to be as successful as a man in pretty much any arena.
Granted, on this point Late Night slathers it on with all the subtlety of a trowel, serving up #MeToo lessons with the kind of obviousness that makes you wonder how the messaging got so out of sync with much of the rest of the film, but it is really not the film’s main focus anyway.
While it does make its fair share of women have it tougher than men points, all of them necessary and timely in a world where #MeToo may have shaken the wall and rafters but has yet to make any appreciable inroads on the foundations, Late Night exists primarily as a kind of escapist diversion, presenting us with an idealised late night show landscape in much the same way that The West Wing held up a burnished-to-perfection of the US presidency.
It is, in many ways then less a rallying cry for equal rights, though it is that and passionately so, and more a career romantic comedy that celebrates the possibilities that might exist if only we have the pluck and gumption, newcomer and veteran alike, to shake up the status quo and try for our own particular slice of the dream.
In that respect, both Newbury and Patel are cut from the same cloth, one seeking to re-invent her reason for being (almost reason for being; it may seem repetitive to say but she and Walter are so, so good together) while the other tries to conjure hers into being.
It’s all fluff and escapism in one way but desperately substantial and real in another, speaking to the need all of us have to feel like our lives matter and once achieved, or on the road to being achieved at least, to stand tough against anything that threatens it.
As rallying cries go, it’s hard to find one that is funnier, more heartfelt, more smartly written or superbly acted than Late Night, a film that takes it trope-heavy roots and make genuinely moving cinema with them, presenting us with a picture of hopes and dreams won and lost and won again, all against the backdrop of a world that isn’t changing fast enough, just yet at least, but if it comes up against the forcefulness and emotional-resonance of people like Newbury and Patel may no choice, thankfully, but to yield.