Movie Night

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A friend kindly pointed out that I was being a little illogical last night, and of course she was right. Several of us went to see Late Night on Friday, at my urging, and I was trying to explain why.

It wasn’t a novel reason. I like going to the movies, the ambience, the popcorn, the dark and the big screen and the other people. I like the experience.

I don’t like the movies so much. I understand the business aspect and I don’t resent anything. There’s surely a Hollywood culture but there’s no Hollywood, no monolithic, institutionalized conspiracy of elites determined to warp our society by making us watch Pokémon. Somebody will pay to watch Pokémon, so that’s what shows up. I completely understand. It’s not personal.

There are 13 films playing at a local theater, just as an example. Two of them are apparently films from 2018 (one a documentary), neither of which I know anything about and don’t even seem to be advertised (I didn’t see anything about them inside the theater).

Another is horror, one is a reboot from the ‘70s, one is a biopic. Two are obviously targeted directly at children. Five are fantasy/sci-fi, including Endgame, which may be there five years from now.

The last one was Late Night, Mindy Kaling’s take on...hmm. I’m not quite sure. Let me get back to that.

My point is, I’d like to go out to see a movie more often. I’m just not inspired lately by what’s playing, and I made the comment that maybe I should get one of those MoviePass-like things so I could go more often but inexpensively.

My friend pointed out that going to the movies because I paid for a pass would mean that I’d be seeing films I’m not interested in seeing, which is fair and correct. It was a dumb thing for me to say. It’s not the expense that keeps me away from the Cineplex.

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I wanted to see Late Night because I love to watch Emma Thompson, and I’ve enjoyed Mindy Kaling from the very beginning of The Office. She created an ancillary character from scratch and made Kelly Kapoor as complex and bizarre—and fully realized—as Michael Scott. If you know the show. Which quite a few people do.

Primarily, though, I just wanted to see something without pressure, without it being a destination, a must-see movie. Late Night came with people I enjoyed watching, a plot that felt relevant and entertaining at the same time, and enough good reviews to justify some effort at arranging for a night at the movies.

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Late Night is a stage-side movie, a look behind the scenes at something probably few of us think much about. It’s not new, this idea to imagine life on a late-night talk show set, and we can pick our favorites from The King of Comedy to The Larry Sanders Show.

We’re also not unfamiliar with the idea of a diversity hire coming in to shake things up, which is how Late Night aims to get out of the blocks: Kaling plays Molly, a quality-control person at a chemical plant who parlays an essay contest into an interview as a comedy writer.

She’s a diversity hire because the host of the show (Emma Thompson) has been skating on personal preferences for the past decade, and the show’s stale enough that a new network president is preparing to replace her. She’s told she needs a female writer, and so it goes.

On paper, this looks like relevancy in today’s world, an untested young woman thrown into the lion’s den of male privilege and just general yuckiness. She becomes an inspiration of sorts to Emma’s jaded host, Katherine Newbury, to whom she gives a blunt assessment: “You’re a little old, and a little white.” Newbury is aware enough to accept this and, surprisingly, spins it into a little comedy gold in an impromptu performance and gives us a peek at her comic chops, or her former chops (she’s been hosting the show for over 25 years).

All of this you can glean from the trailer alone; you don’t even need reviews. You don’t need this one. I don’t think I’m even going to write it.

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Except to say that it was exactly what I thought it would be. Just not more than that, which wasn’t a disappointment, just a minor nagging feeling that there could have been more.

Emma Thompson is terrific, which also isn’t a surprise. John Lithgow has a significant but small role as her husband, and their scenes class up this comedy with a little reality intruding on the laughs. Their back story is only hinted at, as is Lithgow’s career and his current condition (he has early Parkinson’s, apparently).

And Mindy Kaling produces another fully-formed, flawed character, if less neurotic than some of her other roles. She’s not just a breath of fresh air on the fictitious talk show; she’s an Indian-American writer/performer who looks like a real person, itself a pretty novel thing to see on the big screen.

It just wasn’t great, you know? It was fun, it was funny, it was a pleasure to watch and enjoy.

I just don’t think it broke the trope, and I think it wanted to. The comparison most reviewers glom onto is The Devil Wears Prada, trying to draw a straight line from Anne Hathaway and Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly to Kaling and Emma, although Late Night doesn’t have nearly the depth and weight of the other movie (and shouldn’t aspire to; different films).

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I’m more inclined to look at 2010’s Morning Glory, which shifts the locale to a network morning show but otherwise has essentially the same general plot, a young woman (Rachel McAdams) with passion attempting to rebrand a dusty institution and fighting with its gatekeeper, in this case Harrison Ford’s grouchy, sarcastic news anchor.

By the way, Harrison Ford is awful in this movie. Just horrible. I still love it. Weird.

In both films, a young woman who loves the old show enough to want to save it fights stasis and disrespect until her message finally kicks in, and the oldsters change their ways and catharsis is achieved.

Kaling seems to want to show us a young woman with dark skin and a real body fighting stereotypes and a toxic culture in order to save the good parts. She idolizes Newbury the way McAdams idolizes Ford’s cranky newsman, with lots of little-girl-growing-up-watching stories, but Kaling approaches it from a slightly different perspective.

But it still wants to be fun, to fall somewhere between Prada and Morning Glory, and that’s a hard thing. Maybe they could have ditched the ill-defined romantic subplots and focused more on the fish-out-of-water aspect, I don’t know. I still liked it a lot.

And it’s probably just my stage of life, but I appreciate the conceit of new blood coming in and giving an old idea a remodel, mostly by reminding some of the players of whence they came (Newbury and her stand-up comedy roots, Harrison Ford back to old-school investigative journalism).

This is the way of the world, and it’s an old story that still has some heat. Young person shakes things up, young person gets older and more complacent, new young person arrives to shake things up. Rinse and repeat.

I’ve seen Morning Glory 4-5 times. I’m not sure I’ll rewatch Late Night. I’m not sure that’s any kind of standard I hold, rewatching a movie, but it means something, I think.

And seriously: Harrison Ford was horrible. It’s kind of funny.

Chuck SigarsComment