Late Night certainly begs one relevant question: Why aren’t there any real talk show hosts like Emma Thompson’s character Katherine Newbury, and why isn’t Emma Thompson in more movies? She’s the best thing about Late Night, a new comedy written by Mindy Kaling, who also co-stars. Set against the backdrop of network late night television, Late Night certainly shows an insider’s grasp of the milieu (Kaling interned on Conan O’Brien’s show). Late night television is notoriously male-dominated, and ironically, there isn’t a woman late night host as high-profile or powerful as Katherine. That could have been the focus of the movie, but Kaling, wisely, doesn’t take the bait.
Thompson’s piles on the attitude as Katherine, and her timing is sublime. Acerbic and abrasive, Katherine is probably a nightmare to work for, but she’s certainly a pleasure to watch. Katherine, as written and played her, isn’t just a cranky perfectionist, but a misanthropic malcontent who’s been resting on her Emmys for years. Her writing staff consists entirely of men, because she doesn’t like women writers, but it’s hard to see who she does like. Her show is about to get the ax when Molly Patel (Kaling), a diversity hire with no prior television experience enters the picture. Molly’s last work experience was an efficiency expert at a Pennsylvania chemical plant, and her major qualifications are an almost ennoying enthusiasm for being a Katherine Newbury fan. Which, by the way, cuts no ice with Katherine, who numbers her writers rather learning their names.
Kaling shines in her role (if you can’t shine in a role you wrote for yourself you should demand a refund from Final Draft), but the screenplay is a mixed bag. Late Night has a scattershot structure and tends to telegraph its punches. On the other hand, Kaling deserves credit for adroitly avoiding most of the clichés most movies of this type would have driven right into. The male writers on Katherine’s show don’t resent Molly for being a woman – they see her as unqualified and to a man come around as she demonstrates her talent. The reason there aren’t women writers on Katherine’s show is because Katherine hasn’t wanted them.
That Katherine is something of a dinosaur is driven home by her complete obliviousness to social media – until her own personal, and damaging emails, turn up on the internet. And the twist is somewhat novel in the #MeToo era. Here too, Kaling finds a different take on comtemporary issues.
Some years ago, Alan Alda made Sweet Liberty, an incomprehensibly bitchy look at Hollywood for someone who was being allowed to write, direct and star in his own vehicles. Kaling could easily have turned this movie into a rant on sexual and racial politics in the workplace, which she astutely refuses to do.
The performances in Late Night are excellent across the board, with John Lithgow, Reid Scott, Hugh Dancy, Ike Barinholtz, Max Casella and Amy Ryan, among others, all running with chances to make an impression. TV director Nisha Ganatra makes her feature debut here. She doesn’t do anything spectacularly innovative, and if anything her technique is a little old-fashioned, but she doesn’t make any rookie mistakes either.
Late Night is best when it’s portraying, sometimes sweetly, sometimes savagely, a conflict-ridden relationship between two very different woman who for very different reasons need each other. As a writer, she’s drawn that brilliantly. As an actress in a movie, she can’t help but play second fiddle to Thompson, but there’s certainly no shame in that.