Late Night Review: A Sparkling Comedy With a Lot On Its Mind

Late Night Emma Thompson in "Late Night". (Amazon Studios)

Mindy Kaling’s screenwriting debut offers a shaggy but sincere look at the male-dominated world of talk shows.

If Lilly Singh’s upcoming late-night NBC talk show finds its legs, it’ll be the late 2040s by the time we see what it looks like for a woman to become a full-on late-night cultural institution. Late Night offers a glimpse into an alternate reality where that’s already the case. Penned by Mindy Kaling in her feature screenwriting debut, this sparklingly peppery workplace comedy stars Emma Thompson as Katherine Newbury, a comedy legend whose once-groundbreaking late-night show has devolved into a stodgy dinosaur in the three decades it’s been on the air. Katherine gets a rude wakeup call when she learns that network execs are gearing up to replace her with a crass young white male stand-up. Desperate to save the show she’s devoted her life to, Katherine makes a last ditch effort to shake things up.

Late Night is anchored by the magnetism of Thompson’s barbed, layered performance of a woman simultaneously battling external prejudice and internal complacency. Katherine’s a talented trailblazer, but also a cruel bully unwilling to change with the times, and Late Night lets those two realities co-exist. In fact, due to her inherent dislike of (or perhaps just higher standards for) other women, Katherine’s writing staff is entirely white and male. Warned of a potential PR disaster, she instructs her producer to hire a woman, any woman, to fill out its ranks. That leads her to Molly Patel (Kaling), a chemical plant employee, longtime Katherine Newbury fan, and amateur comedian who improbably finagles her way into an interview and a place in the writers’ room.

The biggest problem with Late Night is that it suffers from too many premises. We’re supposed to believe Katherine is solely responsible for her team’s lack of diversity, even as we’re also told she stays so far away from the writers’ room she literally doesn’t even know who’s on her staff. Molly’s arc, meanwhile, is both the story of a woman of color dealing with sexism and racism in a workplace that dismisses her as a “diversity hire” and the story of a complete novice learning the ropes of the comedy world in a high-stakes, high-pressure environment for which she has no real qualifications. Those two ideas aren’t mutually exclusive, of course—part of the film’s argument is that comedy talent can come from anywhere if given the chance—but they feel muddled when mashed up together.

Indeed, Molly’s arc feels somewhat half-formed, as if director Nisha Ganatra (or perhaps even Kaling herself) realized halfway through making the film that Molly functions better as a supporting character in Katherine’s story than as a protagonist in her own right. Detours into Molly’s dating life and workplace relationships feel underdeveloped, but Kaling’s script is beautifully sensitive to Katherine’s personal life. Her long-time husband Walter (a wonderfully understated John Lithgow) is facing the early stages of Parkinson’s disease. That subtly shifts Katherine’s dynamic with the one person in her life she truly trusts and gives Thompson some of her most emotionally rich material to play.

Kaling’s empathetic script takes women whose stories are too often invisible and makes them central to her narrative.

Late Night similarly comes alive when zeroing in on Katherine and Molly’s intergenerational relationship. Though Katherine once shattered glass ceilings, she’s now content to play by the boys’ club rules. Molly, however, is more radical in her willingness to challenge the status quo, largely because she had Katherine as a role model growing up. Having once been a trailblazer for young women, Katherine must relearn how to be one for older women as well. Only this time around she has Molly’s help—at least if she’s willing to accept it.

Though it’s set in the world of late-night TV, Katherine’s story emerges as a broader one about how women grapple with aging in their personal and professional lives. It’s a topic that very few mainstream comedies have examined. Indeed, the fact that Late Night has drawn so many comparisons to The Devil Wears Prada speaks to how infrequently this kind of thematic material has been tackled over the past decade. With both Molly and Katherine, Kaling’s empathetic script takes women whose stories are too often invisible and makes them central to her narrative.

Late Night embraces convention as much as it bucks it. It’s too shaggy in parts and too earnest in others. Yet the quietly radical thought experiment of its premise—coupled with Thompson’s stellar performance and impeccable wardrobe—is enough to carry Late Night through its weaker moments. This is a charming crowd-pleaser with something weighty to say. Its delivery could use a little more polish, but its comedic perspective is sharply original.

Late Night comes to theaters Friday, June 14th courtesy of Amazon Studios.

Late Night Trailer:

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