There was a time, right before he had that quintuple bypass surgery, that Dave Letterman had grown complacent. I’d always been a huge fan of his show, with its gleefully anarchic energy, but the spark was clearly gone; he was going through the motions. After he got back from that near death experience, however, he seemed to have a new lease on life—and a new appreciation for the blessings of his career. The show got good again.
That’s why the premise of Mindy Kaling’s Late Night is so plausible. It’s about Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson), the female host of a late night talk show who is in a rut but doesn’t quite know it. She ends each show by saying that she’s “honored” her audience chose to watch her, but the truth is, she takes her audience for granted. What’s more, she’s a cold, remote, and altogether terrifying boss to her frattish crew of white male writers. After being accused of “hating women” by a writer she’s just fired (he had the temerity to ask for a raise), she demands that her showrunner (Dennis O’Hare) commandeer a woman for the writers’ room. Somehow, the completely inexperienced Molly (Kaling)—she works at a chemical plant where she cracks her coworkers up with chemistry puns—is the lucky recipient of this diversity hire.
Needless to say, Molly is regarded with skepticism and even disdain by her co-writers. And then, before she even has a chance to settle in, Katherine gets the bad news from the new network president: she’s going to be replaced at the end of the season with a lowbrow, sexist, Dane Cook-esque comedian. Katherine is stunned. She thought she was still on top of her game and that the show untouchable. Then her doting husband (John Lithgow) breaks the news that the show has been coasting for years.
Of course, you can imagine what happens next: Molly injects a new, youthful, and inclusive perspective into the show and encourages Katherine to be more “real” in her monologues. Katherine resists at first but eventually begins taking Molly’s advice, with some success. She also notes, with a grudging admiration, Molly’s extreme work ethic. At the same time, Katherine is a deeply unsentimental woman (she calls her writers by arbitrarily assigned numbers, not their actual names), so don’t expect a touchy-feely buddy comedy to break out quite yet.
As Katherine, Emma Thompson is wonderful: Imperious, imposing, fabulous, casually cruel—and yet somehow, we still root for her. This is the genius of Thompson’s performance—and Kaling’s script—she shows us just enough of Katherine’s humanity for us to care. We also know that the odds are stacked against Katherine—even in this fictional, fantasy universe, she’s the only female late night host in the game. Even Katherine’s haircut (a chic pompadour) and fabulous wardrobe (men’s-tailored suits in bright red, cream, and gold) reflect her ambivalence about her own gender. If Katherine is part of the paradox of successful women in their 50s, who often have to act more masculine to succeed, Molly is part of the new generation of “lean in” young women who embrace feminist politics.
Late Night is at its best when it focuses on the inner workings of late night TV. It does a great job of conveying the neurotic, competitive rhythms of the writers’ room, and the unique pressures of working for an exacting boss. And most of its jokes are funny—or at least credibly funny for a late night host—especially when Katherine hits the street and becomes a self-appointed “white savior,” hailing cabs for young black men (whether they want one or not).
Where the film falters is around the edges, as it attempts to shoehorn in not one, but two romantic subplots for Molly. At first, she hooks up with the staff’s resident lothario (Hugh Dancy), but eventually is drawn to head writer (Reid Scott), who initially resented Molly but ultimately comes to admire her. Honestly, neither of these relationships feels particularly fleshed out or necessary. At the very least, she should’ve focused on just one.
In general, Late Night could’ve dug deeper. It flirts with big ideas about women in the workplace and women in power, but doesn’t fully develop them. Even the relationship between Katherine and Molly could’ve been more substantial (it’s missing a signature scene like the famous cerulean blue monologue from The Devil Wears Prada). And Kaling can’t quite shake some of her old sitcom habits (Molly is fond of reciting self-help aphorisms to herself and pastes a cheesy “Never Give Up” poster next to her desk.)
Still, warts and all, Late Night is smart, snappy, and altogether winning entertainment. If Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling form some kind of unlikely new comedy team, I’ll be first in line for their next film.