Published on July 17th, 2014 | by Clint Davis
The Late Shift 
Summary: This chronicle of the "Late Night Wars" between Leno & Letterman does everything the easy way. Its performances are more like SNL impressions than genuine portrayals of the very real people at its center.
R | 95 min.
Director: Betty Thomas
Screenplay: George Armitage, Bill Carter (based on Carter’s book)
Starring: John Michael Higgins, Daniel Roebuck, Kathy Bates
There’s a very good reason Saturday Night Live sketches rarely make good movies. The very nature of sub-seven minute bits is that they need to boil every aspect of the performance down to its most basic element. Performances are loud, cartoonish and focus only on the most obvious, noticeable parts of a character’s personality — which is why The Late Shift is more the stuff of an SNL bit than a legitimate 95 minute film.
There’s a lot to like about this movie on paper. It’s based on a bestselling non-fiction book about the very real and über dramatic soap opera of a fight that went on when Johnny Carson retired from NBC’s The Tonight Show. Its central characters are two of the most recognizable in American media, David Letterman and Jay Leno. Its cast features talents like Oscar-winner Kathy Bates, Golden Globe-nominee Ed Begley, Jr. and was directed by Emmy-winner Betty Thomas, who also helmed the terrific Howard Stern biopic Private Parts. Oh, and did I mention it was executive produced by Ivan Reitman?
So why did this made-for-HBO movie fail to leave any impression on me after it ended?
The Late Shift is so generic in its delivery of what was a tantalizing real-life drama that polarized American television audiences. I mean, you couldn’t ask for better subject material, especially because average people were salivating to know the juicy behind-the-scenes details of this infamous feud that’s continued until Leno’s recent retirement (again). However, instead of a real look at the ridiculous high-stakes game of poker the television networks were playing with each other, we get a goofy chronicle of the tabloid fodder complete with two lead performances that feel more like half-assed impressions.
Leno is played by Daniel Roebuck (The Fugitive, TV’s Lost) while veteran deadpan comic actor John Michael Higgins (Best in Show, Wag the Dog) plays Letterman. Both characters are decked out in full makeup and wigs, including a massive chin for Roebuck and a gap-toothed grin for Higgins — honestly, even the costuming looks like it was done backstage during an SNL commercial break.
I’m not going to knock these two guys for playing Letterman and Leno as mere impressionists would, because I’m sure that’s why they were both cast in the first place, rather than for their acting chops. The worst injustice is perhaps committed by screenwriters George Armitage and Bill Carter (the book’s author) for writing these two icons only as one-dimensional versions of their public personas. Leno is shown mostly as a spineless company man that just goes along with the suggestions of his various handlers, while Letterman is treated as a self-aware curmudgeon that is incapable of relaxing.
I felt like the two actors did a fine job impersonating the two talk show hosts but I didn’t see the elements of a real performance from either. The best acting in The Late Shift comes from the film’s top-billed star, Kathy Bates.
As Leno’s extremely high-maintenance former manager Helen Kushnick, Bates dominates every scene she appears in. There’s no question you will hate her character by about halfway through but that’s what she was going for. In one memorable exchange, she yells at Jay, “You do the fucking jokes, I run the fucking show!” The greatest hits of Helen Kushnick continue, as she berates Jay before his first show taking over for Carson, saying, “Stand up straight for Christ’s sakes, you’re the host of The Tonight Show!” It’s not long after this that Helen is sacked by Leno and NBC, disappearing from the remainder of the film and taking most of its balls with her.
The recreated TV segments of the movie reminded me a lot of The Larry Sanders Show, and why not, considering HBO produced both projects. Sandra Bernhard plays herself in one segment, chatting with Letterman on the set during a break much like many celebrities did with Garry Shandling during the run of Larry Sanders. The big difference? Sanders was a narcissistic boob that the audience loved to see get knocked down a peg while Leno and Letterman are beloved television personalities that most viewers want to see treated with respect.
The biggest thing I took from watching The Late Shift was how incredibly far HBO has come in terms of original productions since 1996. The network was founded in 1972 but in the mid-nineties was still primarily running on airing unedited movies and the occasional boxing match or gritty documentary special. Compared with the Hollywood-esque production values of The Sopranos, which would debut three years later, The Late Shift looks like a softcore porn.
Thomas, who at this point had already directed a very successful feature with 1995’s The Brady Bunch Movie, should have been able to command better production values than HBO gave her for The Late Shift. The cinematography is uninspired and the music sounds like it was made on a Casio; the entire thing just feels made-for-TV.
I applaud The Late Shift for its treatment of the business of network television. The character actors who play NBC executives give commendable turns, basically for keeping the myriad boardroom scenes interesting to watch. The always-dry Bob Balaban plays NBC executive Warren Littlefield, similar to a role he nailed on Seinfeld several times — he actually gives one of the most natural performances in the picture.
The suits are all so afraid to rock The Tonight Show boat when Leno first takes over despite Helen’s downright heinous attitude, all because “the ratings are solid.” We see a grand dick-measuring between the four American networks as well as other production studios who court Letterman with ridiculous salary figures while his NBC situation grows dire. As much as The Late Shift is about the professional rivalry between two of late-night television’s all-time giants, the film is also about the media business and the outrageous money thrown into it.
In the end, I was bored with The Late Shift and wondered what the point was, as I learned very little I didn’t already know about this longstanding nightly drama — and even less about the two men at its center.