"The Late Shift" is not awful, which must be regarded as something of a triumph for HBO.
Of course, it's not very good, either, so at best what we have is a small victory. The casting is bad, the acting mediocre, the writing fine, the story incomplete, the compelling reason to watch this thing hard to grasp.
But for a movie reputed to be the biggest disaster since the Hindenburg, this chronicle of the late-night wars between David Letterman and Jay Leno that dominated the entertainment press a few years back is almost watchable.
Based on a book by former Sun television critic Bill Carter, who now writes for the New York Times, "The Late Shift," premiering at 8 tonight on HBO, is saddled with a host of problems.
Problem one: We all know how it ends. Letterman, deprived of the "Tonight Show" job he'd always wanted, jumps ship for CBS, while Leno, the archetypal trouper, keeps on plugging away at NBC.
Problem two: The story really has no end. In fact, new chapters are being written every week. "The Late Shift" ends with Letterman as the nominal hero, defecting to CBS with an obscenely huge contract, while NBC is forced to stick with Leno. One of the last shots shows NBC honchos Warren Littlefield and John Agoglia (Bob Balaban and Reni Santoni) praying that their decision to stand by Leno doesn't cost them their jobs.
Only thing is, events have already proven it won't. After more than a year of coming in second to Letterman, Leno overtook Dave in the ratings several months back and has stayed there ever since (which is mentioned in a postscript to the movie). NBC is raking in millions of dollars.
So who's the hero now?
The film, with a screenplay by Carter and George Armitage, tries to smooth this rather large sticking point by jettisoning the book's fascination with the behind-the-scenes manipulations in favor of a sort-of "Isn't show business wacky?" attitude toward the whole process. That decision, indicated by the recurring use that old Irving Berlin chestnut, "There's No Business Like Show Business," helps. But it also trivializes the battle of wills so central to the story, to the point where viewers can't help but ask, "Who cares?"
(Plus, it's hard to identify with Letterman when he seems distraught over the possibility of having to accept a $14 million-a-year contract. Oh, the poor boy.)
Problem three, and problem the worst: casting. Poor Daniel Roebuck, who plays the jut-jawed Leno, is forced to wear make-up that makes him look like one of those battery people on the Duracell commercials. He's got Leno's whining manner down, but certainly not his way with a joke. But even Sir John Gielgud would have trouble acting through those prosthetics.
John Michael Higgins, who plays Letterman largely sans makeup, fares somewhat better, if only in comparison. But the movie grinds to a halt every time Rich Little shows up to do his Johnny Carson impression (thankfully only a few times). Little does a great Johnny, but he's not an actor.
The worst piece of casting, however, is Balaban as Littlefield, who was instrumental in convincing NBC to stick with Leno over Letterman. "Seinfeld" fans will recognize Balaban as the same actor who played the buffoonish NBC executive that bought, then didn't buy, then bought the sitcom idea Jerry and George (Seinfeld and Jason Alexander) were pitching. That makes it awfully hard to take Balaban seriously in this role.
Good acting in "The Late Shift" is hard to find, but it is there. Kathy Bates as Helen Kushnick, the fire-breathing dragon lady who engineered her client Leno's rise to the top, stands so far above the rest of the cast it's almost embarrassing. And Treat Williams as Michael Ovitz, the shining-knight agent who rescued Letterman from his own vacillation, oozes Hollywood power from every pore.
Still, the greatest question posed by "Late Shift" is not why Letterman was passed over by the folks at NBC, or how Leno managed to turn the tables and become the more dominant late-night personality.
It's why HBO believed there was a movie to be made here.