By Richard Ades
While appearing on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert recently to talk up her new flick, Emma Thompson described her character as a woman who serves as a late-night TV host. “So it’s basically science fiction,” she joked.
Yes, Late Night does exist in a kind of alternative universe where a woman has crashed the white boys’ club of hosts such as Colbert, Fallon and Kimmel. Even so, the script by co-star Mindy Kaling doesn’t ignore the special hurdles faced by women—as well as racial and ethnic minorities—in the entertainment industry. In fact, it makes salient points on that very issue. The only reason it doesn’t come off as a political diatribe is that Kaling is such a nimble and witty writer.
It also doesn’t hurt that Kaling is a funny and appealing actor. As aspiring joke writer Molly Patel, she functions as the warm, brown-skinned counterpoint to Thompson’s frosty, white-privileged Katherine Newberry.
The story opens as Katherine is forced to face a painful surprise. New network boss Caroline Morton (Amy Ryan) tells Katherine that because she’s been letting her show languish, she will soon be replaced by a new host. Adding salt to the proud feminist’s wounds, the replacement will be a male comedian who trades in sexist, frat-boy humor.
An even more shocking critique comes from Katherine’s invalid husband, Walter (John Lithgow), who tells her the show hasn’t been good in years. When Katherine asks why he didn’t tell her sooner, Walter says he didn’t think she cared. But since she obviously does, he advises her to fight back.
In no time, Katherine begins taking what for her are drastic measures. She actually begins to spend time with her all-white, all-male writing staff, and she counters the charge that she’s out of touch by ordering a “diversity hire.” Thanks to luck and good timing, Molly ends up being that hire despite the fact that she has no experience writing comedy.
What the former chemical-plant worker does bring to the job are (1) experience in “quality control” and (2) her longtime love of Katherine’s show. She puts both to work by pointing out the reasons for the show’s decline, including Katherine’s reliance on stale humor and her refusal to liven things up by venturing outside the studio. Since Molly’s critiques stomp on her boss’s and co-workers’ egos, she only succeeds in increasing their resistance to this eager newcomer.
Fans of David Letterman’s final years on The Late Show might recall that he fell into some of the same lazy patterns as Katherine, recycling old jokes and staying chained to his desk. Unfortunately, Letterman didn’t have someone like Molly, who eventually convinces Katherine to take a chance on edgier material. But it all seems for naught when the comic, like Letterman before her, is embroiled in a scandal that poses a new threat to her career.
Director Nisha Ganatra, whose previous work has mostly been on TV, gives her two stars ample opportunity to flaunt their talents. Thompson wins laughs as a flinty celeb who fires anyone who rubs her the wrong way, while her scenes with Lithgow’s ailing Walter pay emotional dividends. And Kaling is lovably relatable as Molly, whether she’s a fangirl who swoons in her boss’s presence or a self-doubter who still manages to respond to rejection with plucky determination.
The result is not quite a slam dunk, as things do get a bit contrived and message-y at times. Mostly, though, Late Night succeeds in delivering its societal critiques discretely amid torrents of laughter.
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Late Night (rated R) opens June 14 at theaters nationwide.