A lesson to keep in mind for anyone who might eventually share a Netflix queue with me: if I don't know what a film is, I'm not going to let it occupy the number 1 slot for fear of it showing up on my doorstep uninvited. My brother has been pestering me for months to watch The Late Shift, a made for TV movie about the Letterman/Leno The Tonight Show takeover scandal, for the better part of a year. He promised me Kathy Bates ("your favorite," he says, which isn't too far from the truth), dead-on impersonations, and a mind-blowing exploration of what really happened between these two late night titans. Let's start with the positives. Kathy Bates delivers a tour de force performance as Jay Leno's former manager Helen Kushnick. Throw away anything you may have heard about the author of the sourcebook vilifying Kushnick to create a better story: the adaptation of the book created a brilliant villain. Bates is able to sell even the most cliched dialog about "if a MAN were doing what I'M doing, there wouldn't be a problem," and "you promised to take care of me, Jay, you promised." The unexpected result of Bates' portrayal of Kushnick is actually turning a one-dimensional villain into a living, breathing person you care for. To be frank, I agreed with every decision the Kushnick character made because Bates sold the bravado of a shrewd entertainment industry mastermind. I'd almost be willing to say her performance is reason enough to see this Made for TV Movie.
Rather than having look-alikes who sounded nothing like the major players in the real world, The Late Shift cast is filled with actors who bare no more than a passing resemblance to their real life characters. They do, however, do spot on vocal impersonations. If you close your eyes, you hear Leno or Letterman, not John Michael Higgins or Daniel Roebuck. If you pay more attention to their physicality than their facial features (and horrid wigs), they even move just like the late night hosts. Casting is not a problem in this movie.
The problem with the movie is the screenplay. I don't know how anyone can manage to turn the fascinating and shocking backroom dealings that resulted in Jay Leno taking over The Tonight Show into something as banal and cliched as this film. There's even a scene were a bereft manager trashes an office before making a heartfelt plea for support. The pacing of the story is Screenwriting 101, including the unexpected hero being introduced at the top of the second act to save the day as the infallible golden boy. There's an industry party--stand-up party at the Creative Arts Emmys, to be exact--where the background actors move as if they were sitting at a restaurant for an "introduce the major players and establish relationships" scene that wouldn't be out of place in a by the numbers romantic comedy.
If you really want to know what happened to send David Letterman to CBS and create the Leno/Letterman rivalry, research it yourself. If you want to hear some good impersonations and see a great Kathy Bates performance, you might be willing to slog through The Late Shift for the few moments of humor and strong acting.