“Late Night” tells the story of a stagnating talk-show diva who adds a woman to her all-male writing crew in a desperate effort to become relevant again and stay employed. Edgy this movie isn’t, but it abounds with wit and warmth.
Credit director Nisha Ganatra, screenwriter-costar Mindy Kaling, and a gloriously comic Emma Thompson for the enjoyability of this female self-rediscovery journey, boss-from-hell comedy and diversity-hire adventure.
The New York-set story centers on smartly dressed, British-accented Katherine Newbury (Thompson), late-night television’s only female talk-show host. Once a sharp, risk-taking comedian, Katherine, after 28 years on the job, has become out of touch.
When Jimmy Fallon was welcoming Robert Downey Jr., Katherine was interviewing Doris Kearns Goodwin, notes a ratings-conscious network exec (Amy Ryan), who informs Katherine she’ll be dumping her.
Even Katherine’s ailing loving husband, Walter (John Lithgow), tells Katherine she’s gone stale. He encourages her to make viewers love her again.
That effort is hampered by Katherine’s arrogance and by the limited perspective of Katherine’s writing staff, which contains only men. Accused of being anti-female, Katherine gives her producer (Denis O’Hare) an order: “Hire a woman!”
Enter Molly Patel (Kaling), a chemical-plant worker with Indian roots. Molly has no professional comedy-writing experience, but she’s eager and funny and idolizes Katherine.
The guys resent Molly. “I wish I was a woman of color, so I can get any job I want without qualifications,” one gripes.
After some nervous stumbling, Molly begins contributing gutsy jokes and smart suggestions, aimed at making Katherine’s material more personal, political and accessible.
Katherine, however, tries to boost her popularity by booking a bubble-brained YouTube star on the show, with disastrous results.
A sex scandal makes for another setback.
Will Katherine realize, before it’s too late, that Molly’s fresh ideas might save her career?
Don’t expect surprise outcomes or biting satire. What transpires is agreeable, generally predictable and sometimes, as with a romantic element, contrived.
But Ganatra, who has a television background, directs with insight, humanity and charm, and Kaling’s screenplay, inspired by her experiences as a diversity hire on “The Office,” delivers likewise. The movie is bright, observant middlebrow entertainment that criticizes not only male-dominated power structures but also successful women who don’t support other women. It touches on industry realities like ageism, nepotism and megacorporate ownership.
In front of the camera, Kaling, in the catalyst role, is likable and funny.
But it is Thompson who achieves comic, and occasionally poignant, gold. Whether Katherine is being a venerable diva, a tyrannical boss or a vulnerable human being, she’s a terrific heroine whose transformation is a treat to watch.
The impressive supporting cast includes Hugh Dancy as a predatory writer, Max Casella as Molly’s semi-supportive officemate and Ike Barinholtz as a grossly unfunny comic seeking Katherine’s throne.
Starring: Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, Hugh Dancy, John Lithgow
Written by: Mindy Kaling
Directed by: Nisha Ganatra
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes