The Late Shift (1996) / Drama-Comedy

MPAA Rated: R for language
Running Time: 95 min.

Cast: John Michael Higgins, Daniel Roebuck, Kathy Bates, Treat Williams, Bob Balaban, Rich Little, Ed Begley Jr., Peter Jurasik, Reni Santori, John Kapelos, Steven Gilborn, John Getz, Lawrence Pressman
Director: Betty Thomas
Screenplay: Bill Carter, George Armitage (based on the book by Bill Carter)
Review published November 3, 2004

The Late Shift is a made-for-HBO feature film docudrama, based on the book by Bill Carter (who adapted this into a screenplay), that aims to give us an inside peek at the two forces jockeying to take over the vaunted reigns of “The Tonight Show”, the crown jewel of late night talk shows.  With the legendary Johnny Carson not really pulling in the young crowd that competitors like Arsenio Hall are, NBC looks to the future by trying to secure “Tonight Show” fill-in host, Jay Leno, to take over when Johnny retires.  However, there’s a snag.  David Letterman, the late night host who has spent the last decade waiting in the wings to take over as the successor wants that show more than anything else, and trying to keep both parties without losing either proves to be a nearly impossible task for the television giant. 

This is a very enjoyable and interesting drama for all those interested in how networks operate, and is especially riveting for fans of Letterman, Leno or Johnny Carson.  Watching the wheeling-and-dealing that goes on in big money television gives us a chance to see all of the angst and turmoil that can go on behind the levity of the television shows, leading you to conclude that comedy is a very serious business indeed.

As nearly every conflict needs a villain, the heavy in this film comes in the form of Leno’s agent, Helen Kushnick, played with potty-mouthed relish by Academy Award winning actress Kathy Bates (About Schmidt, The Waterboy).  It’s torturous to watch puppy-dog loveable nice guy Leno squirm while Kushnick steamrolls over anyone and anything that gets in her path, and she doesn’t pull any punches.  Just desserts are eventually served, but with Leno doing so well under her supervision, do the ends justify the means?

It takes some getting used to the somewhat lampoon-ish look of Leno and Letterman, played by Daniel Roebuck (Agent Cody Banks, Final Destination) and John Michael Higgins (Wag the Dog, Bicentennial Man), respectively.  However, after the initial first viewing, you become accustomed to their look and mannerisms, which are actually strikingly accurate in their mimicry of their real-life counterparts, although a little overdone at times.  Rich Little plays Johnny Carson, as he has done his impression so many times over the years, but he too falls under the realm of caricature more than character n many ways. 

On the downside, the only thing about the film that is lacking is the poor synthesized score (credited to Ira Newborn) that detracts more than it enhances whenever it is heard.

So how much is fact and how much is fiction?  I’m going to guess it’s quite a bit of both, but for one well-researched version of the real events, it’s a fascinating peek worth a look for all who are curious

Qwipster's rating:

©2004 Vince Leo