Film & Television

Put Emma Thompson — and Her New Movie,
‘Late Night’ — on Your List

Remember the 1990s hit show (and cultural phenomenon) Friends? In season three, episode five, Chandler introduced the concept of the “Freebies List.” As he explained it, he and his girlfriend had “a deal where we each get to pick five different celebrities that we can sleep with, and the other one can’t get mad.” Ross sarcastically observed that the List is at the very “heart of every healthy relationship: Honesty, respect, and sex with celebrities.” However, this didn’t dissuade each of the characters from making their own list, and the episode ended with Ross hitting on Isabella Rossellini, unsuccessfully. Very unsuccessfully.

Inspired by that series, my husband and I have our own Lists. The joke in our house is that mine was a wasted exercise because it comprises two now dead actors, two gay actors, and an actor confined to a wheelchair due to a massive stroke. My husband’s is a bit more conventional, not to mention feasible (at least they’re all living). He has two retired (but still glorious) supermodels, two hot young musicians, and Emma Thompson.

Waitaminute. Emma Thompson?

You might suppose that Thompson’s inclusion would make me resent her. In reality, it makes me appreciate my husband. After all, Thompson is a Freebie with real substance. She’s an Oscar-winning actress (Howards End) and screenwriter (Sense & Sensibility), an accomplished film star who tackles Shakespeare (Much Ado About Nothing, King Lear) with as much ease and grace as she does romantic comedy (Love Actually) and fantasy (Nanny McPhee, Harry Potter). She’s also a dedicated philanthropist, patronizing, among many charities, the Refugee Council, the Elton John AIDS Foundation, and the Helen Bamber Foundation, an organization that offers therapeutic treatment to those traumatized by violence and abuse. Regardless of how many Lists she may or may not be on, Thompson is certainly a woman to admire.

And, she absolutely shines in the smart new grownup comedy Late Night.

Late Night, directed by Nisha Ganatra and written by and co-starring Mindy Kaling, focuses on a turning point in the stellar career of talk show host Katherine Newbury (Thompson). Katherine, celebrated winner of 43 Emmys, is known for her intelligence and her biting British wit. But viewership has steadily declined for the past ten years, and the new network president (also a woman) has decided that this season will be Katherine’s last.

The trouble is, Katherine doesn’t want to go.

Written by a staff of white men from Ivy League schools, Katherine’s material doesn’t exactly resonate with today’s diverse audience. So she tells her right-hand man Brad (the always wonderful Denis O’Hare) to hire a woman. “Would a gay guy work?” Brad asks. “No!” Katherine tells him. Enter Molly Patel (super-talent Kaling), an Indian-American who works in a Pennsylvania factory (“It’s a chemical plant,” she constantly corrects people), but aspires to a comedy-writing career. She does a little stand-up (over the PA system at the factory — sorry, the chemical plant).

Talk about being in the right place at the right time. She’s hired, provisionally, for three months. If it doesn’t work out, and Brad assures her “it probably won’t,” she’ll be gone.

Molly’s first move (and first mistake) is to assess the show and report that its biggest problem is “complacency.” Katherine soundly upbraids her in front of the other writers for assuming — with zero experience — that she knows best, and for criticizing without having a solution or even any jokes to offer. Molly, who is as emotional as Katherine is icy, ends up crying under her desk after being ousted from the ladies’ room, which her gentlemen cohorts have been using freely, since there have never been any lady writers. She gets a pep talk from senior writer Burditt (prolific character actor Max Casella) “She’s not trying to silence your strong female, woman of color spirit, hashtag me too, blah, blah, blah. You’re a new writer with no experience. Write something!” Molly does, and her jokes are contemporary, colorful, and self-deprecating, and although Katherine resists at first, she soon counts on the younger woman for material as well as advice.


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