MOVIE REVIEW: Emma Thompson scores comic points with engaging ‘Late Night’

Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

Emma Thompson stars as a television talk show host who needs to boost her ratings in "Late Night."

When Emma Thompson is front and center in “Late Night,” the new comedy about the battle for television talk show ratings in the age of social media, the movie positively crackles.

Fortunately, her character is the focus of the film. The two-time Oscar-winner (once for lead actress, and once for screenwriting) plays the successful, albeit faltering TV host Katherine Newbury, the only woman in late night.

Thompson is so good at delivering her delicious lines that you can’t take your eyes off her. She scrunches her bright face to make it seem as if she’s taking a quiz whenever anyone else is speaking. Her eyebrows arch. She’s absorbing information and asking a question with one grand look.

Newbury is imperious, and she could have, in the wrong hands, come across as overly negative; a villain even. Thompson softens her character’s edges perfectly. The actress has a keen sense of knowing when something being said is wickedly funny, but she also understands when the often cutting satire needs a softer swipe of the rapier so as not to alienate the audience.

“Late Night” is sharply written by Mindy Kaling, with one exception. It’s well-directed by Nisha Ganatra, especially considering the size of the cast and the various story threads: sexism and ageism in broadcasting, romance in the workplace, changing rules for television in the age of social media, and spousal loyalty and illness. Newbury’s husband (an endearing John Lithgow) has Parkinson’s disease.

Newbury’s writing team is all-male. She’s never bothered to learn their names and calls them by numbers. She ignores the internet and seems to be more old-boy network than some of the old-boys she’s outlasted.

The network’s female dynamo-in-chief (Amy Ryan) is looking for career bullet points and new blood. A crass male comedian, with an annoying rapid-fire shtick, is being secretly groomed to take over when Katherine is pushed out. Newbury is told by the executive that her days hosting the show are numbered. She decides to fight back.

A woman named Molly Patel (played by Kaling) is hired to help write better monologue material, which offers a good extrapolation on how and why certain people get jobs: she’s young, a person of “interesting ethnicity,” and completely inexperienced. In fact, she works in the chemical industry and has dabbled in stand-up comedy, but not well enough to succeed. She’s a fresh-faced, eager bunny with lots of ideas that both repel and intrigue Newbury.

“Late Night” is packed with conflict, which not only generates believable drama, but also some exquisite comedy. Director Ganatra succeeds in wrangling a crowded writer’s room filled with quirky gents, which is commendable. Standout performances are delivered especially by John Early, Max Casella, Paul Walter Hauser, and Reid Scott.

A superb Denis O’Hare plays Katherine’s harried producer. Seth Meyers, my favorite real-life late night talk show host, has a cameo.

Kaling’s script weakens when the film drifts into a poorly thought-out, muddled romance. Additionally, Kaling probably shouldn't have been cast as Molly. Her acting style – cheerful reluctance – doesn’t work here.

“Late Night” succeeds in tackling important topical issues and does it generating solid laughs. A flawless Thompson adds the golden touch.

DARK PHOENIX: There’s a riveting moment in this 12th, and supposedly final, entry in the X-Men series that you genuinely regret writer-director Simon Kinberg didn’t rise to this level of engagement and challenge throughout the entire film.

Of course, part of the credit for the scene working as well as it does belongs to the acting talent of Michael Fassbender, who plays Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto. It’s a simple sequence, but it speaks volumes about the utter failure of “Dark Phoenix” to engage us for most of its running time.

Erik becomes obsessed with the blood he sees on another character’s shirt. That’s it. Although what Fassbender does with his ability to maximize the craft of acting and turn it into something electrifying certainly doesn’t save the movie, it definitely makes those few minutes very interesting.

In “Dark Phoenix,” a character named Jean Grey/Phoenix (a bland Sophie Turner) is zapped with a cosmic force. She becomes a danger to the other mutants and humanity and all of that folderol; hence the title of the film.

Alien enemies beckon her to join their side, but this dreary and time-wasting cinematic enterprise is so unimaginative, and so languorous, that you end up not caring what happens to anybody.

Scotland’s diminutive actor, James McAvoy, another star with the potential to rip through the screen, as Professor Charles Xavier, is more diminished than he’s ever been. When main characters are reduced to picking at the bones of a series that’s past its prime, there shouldn’t be any surprise that audience expectations rapidly dwindle, especially during the first half-hour.

I’d rather have watched McAvoy take us on a tour of the ruggedly beautiful Glen Coe region of his beloved Scottish Highlands. Much of the cast actually looks exhausted. Some of them seem as if a pall of ennui had settled over their persona.

‘Dark Phoenix” is a dull money grab and nothing more. You need to know the X-Men universe to appreciate what occurs; however, there’s so little that could be called truly worthwhile (mostly some good visuals), experienced fans have every right to feel shortchanged.

Michael Calleri reviews films for the Niagara Gazette. Contact him at moviecolumn@gmail.com.

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