We’ve had some workplace comedies recently that aren’t about young women trying to break in but rather about older women who’ve reached the top of their professions and found the perils waiting for them there. Late Night is the best of them, better than Long Shot or What Men Want. This doesn’t make it good, exactly, but it does have some odd insights and corners that give it more sticking power.
Emma Thompson stars as Katherine Newbury, an English comic who has spent the last 28 years as the only woman hosting a late-night TV talk show on a major American network. Let me pause now, so everyone and her sister can point out that that has yet to happen in real life. Anyway, Katherine is a comedy institution with a whole room in her Manhattan house devoted to storing her Emmy and Golden Globe awards, but by consensus, the culture has passed her show by. Agreeing with that is the new network president (Amy Ryan), who strolls into Katherine’s dressing room and tells her that she’s being terminated at season’s end for declining ratings. Trying to preserve her job, Katherine instructs her producer (Denis O’Hare) to shake up her show’s all-male, all-white, all-Ivy League grad writing staff and hire the first woman of color to walk through the door. Enter Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling), a chemical plant worker from central Pennsylvania with no show business experience who nevertheless lives and breathes comedy. She does not quail at the roomful of white guys who openly bitch about “the diversity hire” — quoth one aggrieved male: “I wish I were a woman of color so I could get any job I want” — but it will take more than a positive attitude to succeed here.
This thing gets off to a rocky start. Director Nisha Ganatra has worked extensively in TV, but she doesn’t capture the irrelevant, wheezing vibe that Katherine’s show is supposed to give off. Katherine is depicted as a boss from hell who demeans her employees at every turn, but Kaling (who doubles as the screenwriter here) can’t write insults that are pointed or funny enough to work — paging Armando Iannucci. Ike Barinholtz is sadly wasted as the sexist bro comic who’s been tabbed to take over Katherine’s job. To a lesser degree, the same can be said for the fine bunch of character actors portraying the show’s other writers (Hugh Dancy, Max Casella, Paul Walter Hauser, Reid Scott). In one scene, Katherine inviting a YouTube comic (Annaleigh Ashford) on the show to humiliate her, only for the youngster to immediately realize what’s happening and storm off with her dignity intact. This probably worked better on the page than it does in the execution.
Fear not, the movie does turn for the better, and I can pinpoint the exact moment when it does. It’s when Katherine shows up unannounced to a charity gig that Molly is emceeing and does an impromptu set. After her initial jokes about the lameness of Twitter meet with silence, the camera pulls in tight to her face as she paces the stage, and you can see the performer’s wheels turning as she tries to think of a way to rescue herself. She does so by opening up, letting loose some jokes about aging in show business, and rediscovering the more outspoken comedian she once was. (“I’m the same age as Tom Cruise. He gets to fight the mummy. I am the mummy. I probably need a facelift just to be the voice of a wise old tree in a Pixar film.”) Thompson has been typed as a Serious Dramatic Actress ever since she won that Oscar back in 1993, so you may forget that she once had her own sketch comedy show on British TV for a brief period in the 1980s, or how eccentrically funny she was in the 1990 comedy The Tall Guy, which is well worth seeking out. She can still bring the dramatic fireworks, as in a confrontation with the network president where Thompson and Ryan reach an impressive level of vitriol. Still, even through the filter of her character being a professional funny person, this role makes a nice reintroduction to Thompson’s comic skills.
It’s too bad that Kaling doesn’t have Molly facing some of the really virulent stuff that has been known to go on in the writers’ rooms of TV shows. A writing partner might have helped her reconcile some of Katherine’s sins as a boss and as a wife to her Parkinson’s-afflicted husband (John Lithgow). Late Night is at its best when it depicts Molly’s sensibility energizing Katherine’s comedy, as in a new recurring segment entitled “Katherine Newbury: White Savior,” where the host goes out, interviews people of color about the prejudice that they face, and makes meaningless gestures in response. More of this would have lifted this pleasant little film into something great.
Starring Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling. Directed by Nisha Ganatra. Written by Mindy Kaling. Rated R.