Hollywood has a mixed track record at best when it comes to examining its own failings and foibles, so TV executives dreading “The Late Shift”– HBO’s movie adaptation of Bill Carter’s book chronicling “The Tonight Show” succession battle — can in one sense breathe a sigh of relief: Only a few of them come off as unrelenting dunderheads. Director Betty Thomas has managed to turn this look behind the curtain into a relatively well-paced, entertaining production that will garner a whole lot more attention than it would otherwise deserve thanks to media fascination with its subject matter.
During its best moments, “The Late Shift” brings to mind HBO’s earlier, more intriguing “Barbarians at the Gate,” providing an insider’s view into corporate-think and all the petty concerns that can shape eight-figure decisionmaking.
On the down side, there’s a bit too much of “The Player”-like smugness; it’s presented without similar wit, and the producers seem at a loss about how to frame the story — it opens by saying, “Believe it or not, this story is based on truth,” then closes with the line “There’s no business like show business” and Ethel Merman’s rendition of same.
In addition, few characters emerge beyond the point of caricature in the rush to touch all the bases — to the point where onscreen labels are necessary to identify who’s who. The movie also plays to Hollywood folk. Some of the arcane TV references may not go over in Peoria, and you have to wonder how many viewers will howl at the cameo by former CBS exec Rod Perth.
Nevertheless, there is something strangely compelling about the three-year process that resulted in David Letterman’s leaving NBC, even if the ultimate assumption made by “The Late Shift”– that NBC had erred horribly in letting him go — can be questioned in light of the latenight race’s current state.
Not surprisingly, given the sympathies and tone of Carter’s book, the most intriguing personality is Letterman — a self-tortured, angst-ridden performer who obviously doesn’t realize his own worth or how the game must be played if he really wants “The Tonight Show,” his Holy Grail.
John Michael Higgins captures all of that impressively, combined with a creditable impersonation of the host. Daniel Roebuck, meanwhile, can never really get under Jay Leno’s skin, in part because of the ridiculous prosthetic makeup he’s forced to wear, which is so plastic-looking one half expects his chin to begin melting under the lights.
The movie’s showiest performance is undoubtedly Kathy Bates’ “Misery”-able take on Leno’s former manager, Helen Kushnick. She’s depicted as a raving bully (a closing crawl reminds us she has sued “The Late Shift’s” publisher) whose foul-mouthed diatribes at NBC execs are undeniable highlights, and the pic’s energy sags after her ouster.
The other most-skewered characters are NBC’s Warren Littlefield (diminutive Bob Balaban, who played an NBC exec meant to be Littlefield on “Seinfeld”) and John Agoglia (Reni Santoni). Nearly everyone else is a blur, though Treat Williams doesn’t need to worry about working in this town again with his messianic take on Michael Ovitz and Ken Kragen proves it’s possible to play yourself unconvincingly.
Carter (who shares script credit with George Armitage) clearly has a good feel for the material, and the producers do a creditable job re-creating the various locales, using KTLA soundstages for “The Tonight Show” and “Late Night” sets.
Still, when all’s said and done, one suspects “The Late Shift” was really just HBO’s way of thumbing its nose at the rest of the TV biz, one of the luxuries of running a premium cable service. So when are we going to see a vidpic about the exit of Michael Fuchs?