Reel Dad: ‘Late Night’ is a toast to Emma Thompson

In the sharp and delightful “Late Night,” the great Emma Thompson reminds us that she still commands the screen, both the small one in the story and the big one in the theater. Playing against type as a driven yet vulnerable woman, Thompson digs into her richest role in years with the same conviction and drive she first demonstrated in 1992 when she won an Oscar, and became a star, for Howard’s End.

The civilized world of that E. M. Forrester novel is miles away from the political backstabbing inside a television network in this smart and sassy creation from writer and actress Mindy Kaling. As the film opens, we first see Thompson as Katherine Newbury, a legend in late night television, accepting yet one more award for her precise use of comedy to detail the failings of people she observes. With Kaling’s keen sense of language we start to see, however, that dysfunction behind the scenes with Newbury and her writing staff who dilute the relevance of the jokes in her nightly monologues. We see how, despite promises to freshen the material, writers and star bypass the risk of being too creative for the comfort of remaining familiar. But time takes its toll on this fictional late-night show — with its theme song that sounds like the jingle that played behind Johnny Carson — when Newbury discovers, for the first time, how she must struggle to stay relevant.

Late Night

What this lady faces — as she ages, as others invent — resembles anyone’s struggle in any business. Newbury could be a powerful leader in any field. What makes this character’s plight so endearing is how Thompson reveals the many layers of vulnerability as this lady struggles with her mortality as a television fixture. The ever-so-inventive actress creates a celebration of vulnerability as she reveals each layer of the star’s fears and disappointments. We relish observing how this actress knows just what it takes to make us want more.

As a screenwriter, Kaling wisely shows restraint as she explores how writers and star connect behind the scenes. This is not a rehash of what Paddy Chayefesky imagined in “Network” in 1976. Instead, “Late Night” treats us to the dish of what happens off screen without trying to justify why it all matters. We simply know, as we were first taught in film by “All About Eve” in 1950, that any professional over a certain age can be challenged to sustain records of success. While Thompson’s Newbury may be more than 20 years older than Bette Davis’ fictional Margo Channing in that earlier film, the attitudes against age still sting. Some people are simply not permitted to challenge the realities of time.

Kudos to Kaling for encouraging us to think as she makes us laugh, and to Thompson for making us want even more from an actress demonstrating such range and humanity in a role she clearly enjoys. What a joy to see this masterful actress create such an entertaining look at how someone builds, and then fights to save, a career.

Late Night is rated R for “language throughout and some sexual references.” The film runs 1 hour, 42 minutes.

Film Nutritional Value: Late Night

Content: High. Mindy Kaling delivers a sharp look at the politics, disappointments and ambitions behind late night television.

Entertainment: High. Thanks to Kaling’s precise writing, and Emma Thompson’s virtuoso performance, the film offers an entertaining early summer diversion.

Message: High. As the film entertains, it also makes us think about the challenges anyone can face when careers are threatened as people age.

Relevance: High. Any opportunity to have fun at the movies and discover something to talk about — as a family — is welcome.

Opportunity for Dialogue: High. There’s plenty to talk with your older children about, from the fun performances to the meaningful moral.

‘Sense and Sensibility:’ The Sublime Emma Thompson

We all want a place to call home.

Few of us can imagine how it would feel to suddenly lose what we call home, to be cast out of the house, for no reason of our own, simply because the norms of the time dictate who may inherit a house when a father dies.

Emma Thompson makes us care about such a plight in her Oscar-winning adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility.” After watching the actress shine in “Late Night,” I immediately watched this favorite film again, for the umpteenth time.

In 19th century England, when a father would die, his house would be passed on to the oldest son, regardless of the father’s marital status. So, for the Dashwoods, the father died and his son John (their half brother) inherited the family estate, despite the fact that the dying man had a new wife and three girls. So the son was in and the girls were out and the book was given a plot.

Jane Austen worked with these traditions to comment on the social mores of the period in her classic novel. She shares the saga of the Dashwood sisters as they try to create a new home, forge new relationships and balance their desire for love with their practical need for stability. For generations, this wondrous Austen tale thrilled those who love literature, who crave curling up with a great book on a quiet afternoon. Austen’s ability to cut through the morals of the time, and create fully realized characters, inspired readers to let time pass as they anxiously awaited turning to the next page.

Magically, in her simple use of words and images, she creates a world far from our own everyday routines, and takes us into the lives of fascinating people. For anyone who loves such journeys, the film version of Austen’s classic offers a marvelous visit to the Dashwood girls as they navigate their personal lives and choices against the backdrop of the English countryside.

I was stunned when, on a flight from Hong Kong to Los Angeles in the mid 1990s, how my son Garrett, at age six, fell in love with this film and continues to adore it. He discovered, at a young age, the magic Emma Thompson creates in her adaptation. She does not rule her film by what is on Austen’s page, after all the novel was written a long time ago in a different entertainment world. Instead she projects the spirit of Austen, as though Austen channels through every choice she and director Ang Lee make, especially how to stage the sequences, expand and develop the characters, and introduce conflict into the proceedings. The results are magical — certainly the best adaptation of a British novel of the period — because Thompson and Lee refused to be confined by the traditions of the period. They create an entertainment for today.

These are not extraordinary people; they have simple wants and needs and great capacity to love and care. What’s marvelous, however, about the Dashwoods is how they manage to always find the best in every person, the positive in every situation. Through trial and heartbreak they never lose their optimistic views even when the world seems to turn against them. And, through them, we can learn a great deal about the traditions of the world of that time and how timeless the warmth and optimism of people can be.

“Sense and Sensibility,” released in 1995, is rated PG for “mild thematic moments”. The film runs 2 hours and 16 minutes, and can be streamed online.