Review: “Late Night”

3.5 out of 5 stars.

In “Late Night,” Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling both play women who defy those who underestimate.  The film may be a workplace comedy—and a very funny one at that—but it has an important and timely message that reaches far deeper.

The movie is directed by Nisha Ganatra from a script by Kaling.  Thompson plays Katherine Newbury, the only woman in America to have a long-running show on late night television.  She has staked her reputation on her dignity, devoting her life only to her show and to her ailing husband (Walter, played by John Lithgow), refusing to let anyone get too close to her private life.  But her ratings have been falling in recent years, the show’s content stale due in large part to an all white male writing staff.  When the network threatens to replace her with someone younger and more relevant, and when she is accused of not having any female writers because she’s a “woman who hates women,” Katherine hires Molly (Kaling), a chemical plant worker with no television experience whatsoever.  Molly convinces Katherine that to save her show, she has to do what she has refrained from doing for years: make her show more personal and authentic to her real self.

Molly (Mindy Kaling) helps prominent talk show host Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) save face in “Late Night”

The story is primarily centered around Katherine, but it’s great to have these two similar but different women at the center of the plot to compare and contrast.  Molly is impulsively brought in as a diversity hire (Kaling draws on her own experiences as the only female writer on “The Office”), and none of the other writers believe that she actually might be good at the job.  Molly is sweet and friendly and likes to do things for others; Katherine, on the other hand, is cold, mean, and isolates herself from others.  She had never even met any of her writers until she decided she needed to turn her show around.  But she is underestimated too, in that few people believe that she can actually present herself as likeable and authentic.  These characters are brought vividly to life by Thompson and Kaling. Kaling is immediately funny and likeable, and has good rapport with her other costars, who include Hugh Dancy, Reid Scott, and Denis O’Hare.  But Thompson is a powerhouse.  Kaling wrote Katherine with Thompson in mind, and she couldn’t have cast her more perfectly.  Despite her ruthlessness, Thompson brings a humanity to Katherine that makes the audience like her anyway—without that, the film wouldn’t resonant as it does.  Thompson has had a long and successful career, but Katherine Newbury will likely go down as one of her most memorable characters.

“Late Night” brings up a lot of interesting and timely topics; it’s satire, but like all satire, it is firmly based on reality.  There’s the argument that the greater push for diversification in the workplace is leading to people being hired based on their gender or ethnicity, not because they are the most qualified for the job (the white male writers constantly tell Molly that she has it so easy as a woman of color).  And there’s the comparison of how men and women are viewed in certain situations—that men often come out of scandal with a lot less damage than women.  Kaling’s script is sharp and funny, but as the film progresses it does lose focus at times as it tries to tackle more than it can handle, with some plot points by the end of the movie feeling a bit unnecessary.  We also don’t get quite enough interaction between Katherine and Molly to make their relationship feel like it has progressed to a point that Molly actually would have influence on someone like Katherine.  It’s “The Devil Wears Prada,” but much less extreme.

Like television comedy itself, “Late Night” could have used a few more tweaks to elevate it from a fine film to a great film.  But it’s the rare crowd-pleaser that is both entertaining and thoughtful.  We could use a lot more mainstream movies led by female characters like these.

Runtime: 102 minutes. Rated R.

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