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Don’t sleep on ‘Late Night’

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As a rule, small movies struggle in the summertime. There’s only so much oxygen in the room during Hollywood’s Memorial Day-to-Labor Day promotional blitz, so it’s easy for a low-budget, non-franchise movie to get lost in the shuffle.

Most of the time, that would be the fate of a movie like “Late Night,” the Mindy Kaling-penned comedy directed by Nisha Ganatra and starring Kaling along with Emma Thompson. But this isn’t most of the time, thanks to Amazon purchasing the distribution rights at Sundance; with the power of Bezos behind it, the movie was able to elbow its way to a place at the table.

And it’s a good thing, too, because this movie is one of the funnier offerings we’ve seen thus far in 2019, a smart and sharp workplace comedy with something to say. It’s a film with bite, one willing to tell its story from a perspective we don’t often see. Toss in a killer cast and a legitimately funny script and you’ve got something special.

Katherine Newbury (Thompson) is a trailblazer, a television icon. She is the first (and still only) female late-night host, having sat at the desk of “Tonight with Katherine Newbury” since 1991. But as times have changed, she has stubbornly refused to follow, sticking to her increasingly old-fashioned ideas about what late-night talk should be and resisting the trends toward goofy games and viral video segments.

She’s also got an all-male writers’ room, which is only contributing to the general fustiness and steady downward ratings spiral. Enter Molly Patel (Kaling), a chemical plant worker from Pennsylvania who parlayed an essay contest into a meeting with one of the “Tonight” executives. Suddenly, Molly finds herself hired, the only non-white, non-male writer on staff. Her presence is generally resented, particularly by Tom Campbell (Reid Scott, TV’s “Veep”), who is in charge of the monologue and thinks Molly is a token hire at best.

Molly struggles to get comfortable, but she slowly finds her way. Longtime writer Burditt (Max Casell, “Night Comes On”) takes her under his wing; the other writers soon begin to accept her. However, it may all be for naught; Katherine gets word from network president Caroline Morton (Amy Ryan, “Beautiful Boy”) that she’s on the verge of being replaced.

With nothing left to lose, Katherine throws herself into a reinvention of the show, with Molly helping to lead the charge. But when word leaks about something in Katherine’s past that could threaten not only her job, but her relationship with her ailing husband Walter (John Lithgow, “Pet Sematary”) as well, she’s left to decide just what she’s willing to fight for.

“Late Night” isn’t the sort of movie you expect to see open in the midst of the summer season. It doesn’t have CGI explosions or a number after the title; it doesn’t have a nine-figure budget and even higher expectations. It is a small, well-crafted comedy … one that just happens to have the Amazon machine behind it. By most reckonings, it just isn’t a summer movie.

But that’s a feature, not a bug.

Sometimes, the noise surrounding the cineplex in the summertime is simply too much to bear – sheer cacophony. Franchises visually bleeding together into a jumble of quick cuts and garish colors; increasingly broad cinematic universes tripping over themselves. It’s a lot.

And into the chaos drops “Late Night,” a smart, well-crafted comedy that is content to tell a grounded story in an engaging way while also being remarkably timely in terms of the larger issues it chooses to address. It is an ideal break from the blockbuster norm.

Just the conceit – a female late-night host – allows for a headier conversation amidst the jokes. Maybe the greatest thing about this film is the fact that it easily does both, addressing the toxicity behind some cultural conventions with sincerity while also finding ways to laugh at it. It’s a story obviously informed by Kaling’s own experiences within the industry, lending a level of verisimilitude that is often lacking in this sort of behind-the-scenes narrative.

Speaking of Kaling – she’s great onscreen as well as behind it. One assumes she wrote the part for herself; she certainly inhabits the role as if it was built for her. She does a good job of taking a step back from her standard comedic persona – Molly isn’t Mindy, and that’s a good thing. Thompson is brilliant, of course; it’s a great role for her to really stretch her legs in. She’s clearly enjoying herself, making Katherine Prickly as hell while also offering brief glimpses of vulnerability. Scott captures the smarmy Ivy League comedy bro vibe perfectly, while Lithgow is wonderfully subdued as Walter. The rest of the ensemble is solid as well; Casella is low-key great, while the other writers blend together in a way that feels like an active choice rather than an unfortunate turn of events.

“Late Night” isn’t your typical summer movie. And thank goodness for that. It’s a clever comedy with something to say, a movie that will leave you laughing while also giving you some food for thought. The performances are great – Thompson in particular is outstanding – and the story is compelling. Fearless and funny, “Late Night” is worth staying up for.

[5 out of 5]

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