From Miranda Priestly to Darth Vader to Michael Scott, bosses are a well-documented presence in the world of cinema and television. Across all workplaces, the power imbalance between employee and employer is a delicate and interesting dynamic, eliciting a sense of familiarity no matter how loathsome, otherworldly or loveably irritating our on-screen boss might be. Bad bosses are a dime a dozen, and, as all worker bees know, it seems that there is no conceivable limit to what they can get away with.
With her witty debut feature, Too Late, director D.W. Thomas dives into the surprisingly eerie world of L.A’s indie comedy scene, taking on a boss who is a monster in every sense of the word. The black comedy follows Violet (Alyssa Limperis), a comedy booker and personal assistant to influential stand-up legend, Bob Devore (Ron Lynch: Bob’s Burgers). Violet’s relationship with her boss is complicated, to say the least: he’s ignorant, oddly threatening, rude and unappreciative of Violet’s talents. Yet, Violet sticks with her thankless job, running to fulfil each of Devore’s demands at the drop of a hat, believing that doing the grunt work will eventually provide her with the opportunity to make connections and pursue her own career on the comedy circuit.
It gets worse when we learn the extent to which Devore’s demands breach the boundaries of a traditional professional relationship. Devore – who eventually reveals himself to be some kind of undead cannibal vampire hybrid (his monster status is left pretty vague) – exclusively feeds on the flesh of sub-par comedians, and he relies on Violet to scout the talent and serve them to him on a platter. At first, the job doesn’t seem all that hard, given the number of pushy, sexually aggressive douchebag types who approach Violet, looking to use her – by whatever means necessary – to land a spot-on Devore’s televised late-night stand-up comedy show, Too Late. However, when Violet begins to develop feelings for Jimmy Rhodes (Will Weldon), a talented up and coming comic living in her friend’s walk-in closet, she realises that she must put a stop to Devore’s tyranny before her new beau becomes her boss’s next breakfast.
There’s a sharp concept at the heart of Too Late, which attempts to reveal the power dynamics at play between men and women working in the entertainment industry. With the downfall of creatures such as Harvey Weinstein and the growing prevalence of the #MeToo movement, the film’s attempts to further expose the toxicity existing in Hollywood are timely and very welcome. Keeping her key themes in mind, Thomas constructs a realistic enough picture of the ruthless and parasitic type of industry Violet is working within—the kind where the people on top consume and abuse the people at the bottom. However, although the film’s central theme is an integral one, as we progress into the world of comedy cannibalism, things start to get a little messy.
Initially, Thomas takes an understated mumblecore, Joe Swanbergesque, hipster style approach to her exploration of L.A’s comedy nightlife circuit; she constructs an intriguing clique of characters who are trying to break into the mainstream and fills Violet’s plate with quirky romance possibilities, troublesome friends, confidence issues and dismal career prospects. So, from the get-go, it’s difficult to imagine precisely how low-budget movie monsters are going to infiltrate Violet’s world. When the horror elements do eventually begin to creep in, they fail to gel with the spirited set-up, and the intriguing threads and lively supporting characters Thomas took time to establish start to fall by the wayside. With her professional and personal lives at odds, it’s challenging to get to grips with Violet. We spend plenty of time bouncing around her life, but she never feels completely knowable. As a result, her stance on Devore’s diet becomes vague, and throughout most of the film, she doesn’t appear overly conflicted about the moral dilemmas of job. Our inability to read Violet eventually robs the movie of its chance to build the kind of substantial tension which worked so well in Kitty Green’s workplace expose, The Assistant.
However, the film’s major problem is its serious lack of quality jokes. Sure, there are some nice gags here and there – mainly from Jenny Zigrino, who steals every scene as Violet’s vivacious friend Belinda – but given the amount of time Thomas has us spend at open-mic nights, there’s a notable lack of knee-slapping. The script takes very few risks, delivering unforgivably bland and stale material that is in no way representative of the realistic world of stand-up comedy the film attempts to construct. It almost feels as if Thomas and writer/spouse Tom Becker tried to take the safe route through their narrative. However, there is no playing it safe when it comes to stand-up comedy or horror—they are both go big or go home types of industries. This notable lack of funny is extra disappointing given that comedy genius Fred Armisen (SNL, Portlandia) was on hand as a supporting character, denied the opportunity to deliver his reliable brand of silliness. From now on, can we all promise to use Fred Armisen to the best of our abilities when we have him on set?
Unfortunately, not even the films horror elements make up for the lacklustre laughs. It’s as if the film never quite strikes up the right balance between comedy and horror and wastes the opportunity to successfully filter its bright ideas and original concepts through either genre. It’s tempting to blame this failure on the film’s small budget, but the real culprits are the script’s overall lack of tension and the filmmaker’s minimal effort made to attempt something bold, gruesome or shocking. A convincing performance from Alyssa Limperis saves the film from its path toward total monstrosity; she adapts well to the developing aspects of Violet’s world, delivering a female heroine with grit and spark. Plus, it’s fun to watch Ron Lynch quite literally chew his way through the scenery and play around with the freaky ambiguities of his character.
Ultimately, Too Late is a curious and eccentric debut feature with a steadfast central aim, but it fails to construct a unique voice or deliver a memorable narrative. However, perhaps such a thing was always an impossibility because, well, who doesn’t have some kind of horror story about their boss?