Movie Review: ‘Late Night’ Brings Some Diverse Casting, But Not Diverse Storytelling Ideas, to the Workplace Comedy Genre

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CREDIT: Emily Aragones/Amazon Studios

Starring: Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, John Lithgow Denis O’Hare, Reid Scott, Hugh Dancy, Max Casella, Amy Ryan, Paul Walter Hauser, John Early, Ike Barinholtz

Director: Nisha Ganatra

Running Time: 102 Minutes

Rating: R for Comedy Writers Talking as They Do

Release Date: June 7, 2019 (Limited)/Expands Nationwide June 14, 2019

Late Night stars Mindy Kaling (who also penned the script) as Molly Patel, the new hire at a talk show’s previously all-male, all-white writers’ room. But the real kicker isn’t so much the push for a diversity hire as much as it is Molly’s professional background, or lack thereof. She previously worked as an efficiency expert at a chemical plant and made it into her new gig through the most contrived of circumstances. I could complain about how unlikely Molly’s journey is, but I actually don’t care about the unlikelihood. The most improbable version of this story possible is perfectly fine so long as it is also some combination of funny, unique, and insightful. Alas, it is not really any of those things.

CREDIT: Emily Aragones/Amazon Studios

The setup isn’t the problem. In addition to the Molly angle, there’s also the matter of this show being hosted by a woman, the legendary (i.e., relic) Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson). Late Night tries to say something meaningful about how even a woman can reinforce the good ol’ boy status quo. But Katherine’s mistreatment of her staff transcends gender and race. And ultimately the social commentary amounts to little more than a red herring. This is mainly the story of the odd couple friendship that develops between Katherine and Molly, which is nice enough, but it struggles to be resonant within a rather scattered, shallow approach.

Late Night is Recommended If You Like: Watching old middle-of-the-road late night talk show clips

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Monologue Jokes

This Is a Movie Review: With ‘Beatriz at Dinner,’ Salma Hayek Ain’t Taking No Guff From Racist John Lithgow

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This review was originally published on News Cult in June 2017.

Starring: Salma Hayek, John Lithgow, Connie Britton, David Warshofsky, Chloë Sevigny, Jay Duplass, Amy Landecker, John Early

Director: Miguel Arteta

Running Time: 83 Minutes

Rating: R for Verbal Knifeplay

Release Date: June 9, 2017 (Limited)

What would you do if you have had a chance encounter with the person who represents all that you oppose? I imagine that many people would feel quite strongly when responding to this question but also that it would produce a number of disparate, potentially conflicting answers. Beatriz at Dinner, the latest collaboration from the Chuck & Buck team of writer Mike White (School of Rock, HBO’s Enlightened) and director Miguel Arteta (Youth in Revolt, Cedar Rapids), fundamentally understands this tension, with conviction in its ideals and uncertainty about how to live by them.

Beatriz (Salma Hayek) is a goat-owning masseuse/healer who makes a house call to her wealthy client Cathy (Connie Britton). When her car breaks down, she finds herself stuck at Cathy and her husband’s Grant’s (David Warshofsky) fancy dinner party. Cathy is happy to have Beatriz there, as she considers her family ever since she helped her daughter through cancer treatment. But Beatriz is culturally light years away from client’s friends and colleagues. Chloë Sevigny, Jay Duplass, and Amy Landecker are right in their cluelessly arrogant upper class wheelhouses. (Sample dialogue: “I love psychic stuff.”) And then there is real estate mogul Doug Strutt, brought to gloriously, hideously racist life by John Lithgow.

Comparisons between Strutt and a certain current world leader are inevitable, among perhaps both his detractors and his supporters. But it is worth noting that Lithgow’s performance is as far as can be from crudity, in terms of style if not so much substance. His default presence makes him a natural at playing oddly trustworthy authority figures. He has a hint of eccentricity – not so much that he ought to be dismissed, but just enough that he is allowed to get away with it. That reputation is ripe for subversion, as in the NBC sitcom Trial & Error, where his eccentricity verges on bumbling idiocy, or here, where it is a cover for plain evil.

While Lithgow’s performance is impressive in the most expected ways, Hayek’s is fascinating for how surprisingly, and occasionally even bafflingly, Beatriz behaves. But there are not really any logical inconsistencies here, as there is no blueprint for how to act in this situation. Beatriz believes that she recognizes Strutt as the developer who destroyed her Mexican community, and so she viciously chews him in front of the whole party. In this game of chess, she may have sacrificed her queen too early, but perhaps it is all part of her strategy. She bobs and weaves, offering up apologies, or feigning them, or mixing legitimate apologies in with lip service. In the meantime, she gathers up evidence to potentially prove Strutt’s misdeeds. But to what end? This is a man who boasts of skirting, or even running roughshod over, the law.

Responding to this moral vacuum requires counterintuitive behavior, which inspires a career-best performance from Hayek but puts the film on shaky narrative ground. The story ultimately becomes just as untethered as Beatriz, and accordingly it cannot really figure out how to conclude. Should it go in for the kill and ramp up the intensity, or should it settle for the moral victory? It offers up both versions, which is a little frustrating, but the straightforward viciousness is fun while it lasts.

Beatriz at Dinner is Recommended If You Like: Enlightened, Evil John Lithgow, Clapping Back

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Aperitifs for Destruction