Emma Thompson can wear the hell out of a gold blazer. I know that’s not the point of Late Night, but it’s also not not the point of Late Night. Mindy Kaling, who also co-stars, wrote the script with the actress in mind, and she crackles in every scene, her charismatic smile drawing us in like the audience of the show her character has hosted for more than 20 years. If only the rest of the film managed to keep up.
Thompson plays Katherine Newberry, a veteran late-night host (“28 years and counting”) who’s gotten complacent. Ratings for Late Night With Katherine Newberry have been in steady decline for the last decade, and the new head of the network, Caroline Morton (Amy Ryan) — another woman in an all-too rare position of power — informs her that she’s on her way out, to be replaced with a thinly-veiled Dane Cook parody played by Ike Barinholz. For multiple Emmy-winner Katherine, a frosty British feminist who repeatedly states that she strives for “excellence without compromise,” it’s the ultimate insult.
When someone accuses Katherine of hating women (she has no racial or gender diversity in her staff), she makes a last ditch attempt to salvage her reputation and her show, and instructs her showrunner, Brad (Denis O’Hare) to “hire a woman.” Enter Molly Patel (Kaling), a quality control supervisor at a chemical plant with dreams of making it as a writer in comedy who has landed an interview through very convoluted corporate channels.
In director Nisha Galatra’s capable hands, this classic fish-out-of-water workplace comedy set-up gets a refreshing twist. Molly knows she’s a diversity hire (she’s told this to her face several times), and rather than shy away from that fact, she faces it head on, showing up with cupcakes and a smile on her first day, to the dismay of her all-white, all-male colleagues (who include Reid Scott, John Early, and Hugh Dancy, among others). Molly may come off as naive, but she knows how the world works. She’s willing to play the part of the token woman of color, but she’s going to use it to her advantage.
Kaling pulled from her own experiences as the only woman of color in The Office writer’s room, and she deftly balances out Molly’s sunny enthusiasm with the bleaker realities of ingrained misogyny. The women’s bathroom, for example, has become a literal dumping ground — as in, that’s where the dudes go to take a shit.
And it’s not just the men — Katherine may choose to bring historian Doris Kearns Goodwin on the show as a guest, but she’s not great at working with other women on her own turf. Thompson dives into Katherine’s most unlikeable characteristics with gleeful zest, and it’s refreshing to see a woman in power not pander to the men around her, even if that means completely overlooking a colleague’s tragic premature death. That comes through even in her wardrobe, which is full of desirable blazers, clean lines, and platform brogues — traditionally masculine clothing that she wears with a distinctly feminine twist as an armor of sorts.
Still — Thompson plays her with a refreshing layer of humanity, which makes us truly care about what happens to her. Whereas The Devil Wears Prada’s Miranda Priestly’s marital troubles were used a last-minute foil to her terrible boss persona late in the game, Late Night shows us Katherine’s inner life early on. A scene with her ailing husband (John Lithgow), one of the most supportive people in her life, softens her image without making her compromise her professional persona. (And makes for a stronger gut-punch later in the film, when a scandal threatens to derail her hard work.)
But for all of Katherine’s bracing rudeness, she’s also not completely misguided in her initial skepticism over for her latest hire. Central to the film’s premise is the grounding notion that being hired is not enough — you need to actually do the job, and well. Molly initially flounders in that department, but finds her footing when she stops simply pointing out Katherine and the show’s blind spots, and actively works towards solving them.
One of her suggestions involves Katherine getting personal, and embracing her status as the only woman in the late night space. For years, she’s been taking on men at their own game — but why should she play by their rules? Why not make a joke about abortion (gasp!) or menopause (double gasp!) that only she, as a woman over 50, can make?
It’s here that the film loses its footing. The otherwise sharp script waffles in its approach to Katherine. It’s as if the movie can’t make up its mind about the reasons for her demise: Did she simply get lazy? Or did she fall behind on the times and lose the pulse? And how does someone so controlling of the words she says on-screen avoid the writer’s room for years?
In fact, in many ways, the late night aspect of Late Night feels like a convenient backdrop for the point Kaling is trying to make rather than an essential component of the story. The subject is a topical one, but the approach feels stale. Male hosts like Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert are repeatedly name-dropped — Seth Meyers even makes an appearance — but there’s no mention of existing non-network female hosts who have been doing just that. Does Chelsea Handler not exist in this universe? Or Samantha Bee? Or Busy Philipps, whose recent impassioned and deeply personal speech about abortion went viral?
As for Molly, I wish we got to know more about what drives her. It’s as if Kaling, whom we’ve seen strive for success in previous shows like The Mindy Project, is relying on our prior knowledge of her on-screen personality rather than crafting a new one from scratch.
And yet, it’s hard to deny that the two are a joy to watch. Late Night is at its best when Kaling and Thompson are locked in a battle of wits. It’s a rom-com about loving your job above all, and the two sell that with gusto. If you’re looking for a glossy, wholly enjoyable movie with mass appeal, Late Night delivers. But perhaps because of that, it’s not as cutting as one would hope.