Late Night is a solid workplace comedy that fluctuates between really smart and funny, and just okay. That unevenness may limit its success at a crowded box office, though it does have all the key ingredients for a second chance at life in the streaming and rental market. Emma Thompson plays Katherine Newbury, a legendary late night talk show host in danger of losing her show after 30 years. She’s brilliant and witty, but also harsh, demanding and stuck in her ways. As a boss, she’s like a hybrid of intimidating editor Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada and the prickly genius diagnostician from House. In a last-ditch effort to shake things up and become more relevant, Katherine decides to finally add a woman to her all-male writing staff, and that opens the door for Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling), an efficiency expert at a chemical plant who has a flair for comedy. Molly happens to be in the right place at the right time to get the kind of big break we all dream about. But she’s going to have to overcome a lot of obstacles and resentment to prove she’s more than just some “diversity hire”… all while staying true to her enthusiastic and idealistic self.
Kaling doesn’t just co-star in Late Night, she wrote it. It’s her first feature film script, but she’s no stranger to the game. At 24, she became the only woman on the eight-person writing staff of the TV comedy juggernaut The Office and went on to appear in the show as well. So the Late Night world represents familiar territory to explore and exploit with humor and heart. Many of the themes – including office politics, complacency, sexism, feminism, boys-club-ism, territorial spats, etc. – will ring true regardless of where you work. There are plenty of LOL moments to relate to throughout Late Night, but I had trouble buying into the speed in which some of the character shifts and epiphanies took place. Ha! If only!
It’s hard to fault Kaling for casting herself in the self-scribed role of Molly. But endearing as she is to watch, I couldn’t shake the sense that she wasn’t necessarily the best choice to go up against the formidable talents of veteran actress Emma Thompson (MIB4, The Children Act, Saving Mr. Banks) and that the film itself sometimes shifted into sitcom vibe when it could have gone deeper.
Late Night has a lot of #GirlPower going for it. In addition to co-starring Kaling and Thompson, the film is directed and scored by women. It’s not a testosterone-free zone, however, and the film never resorts to unnecessary male bashing. The supporting cast includes some watchable dudes to service the plot and various office romance shenanigans. And John Lithgow adds a dash of male gravitas as Katherine’s husband Walter, a professor emeritus and pianist battling Parkinson’s Disease. It’s a small role that doesn’t provide much room for laughs, though Lithgow is a pro at balancing comedy and drama.
Late Night is rated ‘R’ for having the F-word and some relatively tame sexual references. I’d call it a ‘soft R’ much like the excellent, recently-released (and largely overlooked) Booksmart. See that one first. Then add Late Night to the queue.