Summer escapist fare puts a refreshing focus on females
The movies are, regrettably, still a man’s world, with the faces on screen and the jobs behind the scenes still heavily dominated by individuals carrying the Y chromosome. And summer is emphatically the testosterone season with its emphasis on superheroes, adventure thrillers, and ribald comedies, all of which, apparently, are perceived to only succeed on male talent. So it is a refreshing respite (and that is all this may be) when two summer movies—Late Night and Men in Black: International— focus their attention on female leads. It’s even better for this critic and admitted fanboy that both films feature nuanced, out-of-theordinary performances by Emma Thompson.
Men in Black: International returns us to the sturdy franchise with two new leads at the center of the usual intergalactic comic mayhem, Agents H (Chris Hemsworth) and M (Tessa Thompson). But the story is really that of M, whose obsession with all things extraterrestrial we discover in a prologue. M, otherwise known as Molly, had a childhood alien encounter, and that has led her to a life pursuing the opportunity to become one of the mysterious Men in Black. When she finally discovers MIB’s secret New York headquarters, the station chief is none other than Agent O (Emma Thompson). The two have a weary, knowing exchange about the antiquated, sexist organization title. What are you gonna do?
The movie features several little grace notes such as that, maintaining the tradition of the comic book origins of this mythology while acknowledging the changing environment of our #MeToo era. Sadly, the action shifts to London, where Agent M is thrown back into a male-dominated culture and a male-dominated feature film. She gets her first probationary assignment with H as her partner, and we are off to the ET races.
The rest of the film follows M’s coming into her own as an agent as she and H try to solve their case. The plot and characters tread predictable territory but the thrills and laughs are delivered with polish, thanks to the screenplay by Matt Holloway and Art Marcum and the brisk direction of F. Gary Gray (The Fate of the Furious, Straight Outta Compton).
The cast—which includes not only Hemsworth and Emma Thompson but also Liam Neeson and Rafe Spall—are all solid contributors, especially the voice work of Kumail Nanjiana (The Big Sick) as CGI alien Pawny. But the film succeeds on the appealing tartand- sweet persona of Tessa Thompson. Still early in her career, the younger Thompson has demonstrated a screen magnetism and complexity that have surpassed the roles themselves. Her work in the Thor and Creed franchises especially has been refreshing.
Another fresh talent, Mindy Kaling, has been paired with Emma Thompson in the new workplace comedy, Late Night. In this film, Thompson plays Katherine Newbury, a brittle, imperious late night talk show host who has been coasting on her reputation for years. Threatened with cancellation, Newbury decides to hire a young female of color to join her all-white, all-male writing staff. Enter Molly Patel (played by Kaling, who also wrote the screenplay), an earnest but seemingly unqualified candidate who nevertheless checks all the boxes the star and her producers are looking for. But it turns out that Molly has two undiscovered talents—a natural flair for topical comedy and an ability to speak truth to her formidable employer.
Kaling is really the star of her own movie here, and she proves to be another appealing performer, with a winsome naiveté masking a hard-fought backstory and a strong spine. The back-and-forth scenes between her and Thompson are the highlights of the movie, as well as Molly’s deft handling of her boys-club colleagues in the writers’ room.
Thompson has more to work with in this screenplay (whereas her MIB appearance is simply an arch extended cameo), and she demonstrates the acting chops that have undergirded her long cinematic career. Her command of subtle body language and her thoughtful way with dialogue (she is, after all, an Oscar-winning screenwriter herself) show the tremendous craft that have been her hallmark.
Kaling’s screenplay (her first feature) can be obvious at times and clunky in others, but it provides the framework required for these appealing performances. Both Men in Black: International and Late Night dependably deliver an entertaining evening at the theater, thanks in large part to the work of the female leads.
Coming in July: The latest installment in the Spidey saga has Peter Parker on vacation in Europe, Spider-Man: Far from Home, July 2; Awkwafina stars in a dramedy about a Chinese-American woman struggling to deal with her grandmother’s terminal illness and her family’s decision to keep that secret in The Farewell, July 12; David Crosby: Remember My Name, an insiders’ biography of the singer’s tumultuous life on and off the concert stage, July 19; and Quentin Tarantino’s love letter to 1960s Tinseltown, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, July 26.
Men in Black: International: 3 out of 5 stars
Late Night: 3 out of 5 stars