By Ric Bagoly
The much ballyhooed battle for control of the Tonight Show hosting gig features one of the toughest tasks for any movie, and that is having three well-known pop culture figures portrayed by actors with varying results. The first is Daniel Roebuck as Jay Leno: While we get the fancy cars, motorcycles, and wardrobe that Leno is known for, Roebuck for the most part fails to capture the essence of Leno convincingly, to the point that all we are aware of is an actor with a prosthetic chin and high-pitched voice doing a rather unconvincing impersonation.
We see little of the charisma that enabled Leno to do what he did, instead getting basically a well-meaning nebbish who at times seems almost attached at the hip to his controversial agent who threatens to bring his career down. In fact, the only time Roebuck’s acting is effective is when he talks about what she has meant to him, as he is torn between his loyalty to her and his drive to stay on top of the late night game, but we still don’t become immersed enough in the performance to separate the actor from the character.
In contrast to this is John Michael Higgins, absolutely NAILING the role of David Letterman. Even as the character is developed as an insecure egomaniac who constantly scrutinizes his own work, the viewer gets the feeling that we are actually seeing what Dave is like off-camera, cussing like a sailor and enacting the unique look and mannerisms we know so well. Finally there is legendary impressionist Rich Little as Johnny Carson: As expected, Little gets the voice and speech inflections down perfectly, but we still get the ghoulish impression of watching a wax figure come to life, and Carson’s role in the story makes him seem ineffective when it comes to settling the dispute.
The supporting cast do more than their share to pick up the slack though: Bob Balaban and Reni Santoni as the NBC execs are enjoyable to watch as they try to straddle both sides of the fence and keep both their late night stars happy; Treat Williams nearly steals the show as uber power broker Mike Ovitz, deftly working his way thru the Tinseltown elite with a smoothness that is unmatched by anyone, selling us completely on this man who would go on to be one of the most reviled figures in Hollywood for his pocket-lining manipulation of the Walt Disney Company; And finally Kathy Bates as Leno’s manager Helen Kushnick is a wickedly nasty turn that is enjoyable to watch every time she is on-camera, complete with a devilish cackle, though at times the character is so over the top I wondered if the portrayal was more of a hatchet-job than anything, an excuse to have an all-purpose villain in the story to cause much of the conflict despite Bates’ brilliant acting.
The story itself is funny and well-told, with director Betty Thomas bringing a light touch to the material that keeps it from ever getting boring. Best of all is the feeling that you are witnessing a side of the business that never gets accurately portrayed but always talked about when it comes to throat-cutting back-stabbing Darwinism in show business. The film succeeds in throwing in every possible angle into the tale including the kitchen sink, by having actors in bit parts portraying everyone from Rupert Murdoch to even GM Chairman Jack Welch. Overall, a fun skewering of the Hollywood establishment that we usually only read about…