Comedy isn’t usually my genre of choice but I couldn’t turn down the combination of Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling in “Late Night.” This new film, penned by Kaling and directed by Nisha Ganatra does tickle the funny bone but in a subtle and heartfelt way, saying much about the fleeting nature of popularity, what being under the celebrity microscope can do to authentic relationships, and the (getting better but still) underrepresentation of women in Hollywood and television.
I can’t say enough about Emma Thompson is this role, written specifically for her by Kaling. She plays Katherine Newbury, a late-night talk show host, whose 28-year run is about to come to a screeching halt. Thompson infuses Katherine with the right balance of acerbic wit, commanding presence, and gentle vulnerability. She’s the kind of boss whose popularity has made her feel entitled to run roughshod over those who work with her. Her all-white male team of writers, many of whom have never even met her, struggle to please her every whim and totally freak out when she shows up in the writing room one morning. Not bothering to even learn their names, she assigns them each a number. It seems like she doesn’t like women much, either, but she reluctantly agrees to hire a woman for the sake of diversity in the writing staff and to inject some new ideas into the team.
Mindy Kaling as Molly and Emma Thompson as Katherine in "Late Night" (Amazon Studios)
Enter Molly Patel (Kaling). She’s been a fan of Newbury’s show for years and imagines herself adept at comedy, mostly entertaining her chemical plant co-workers over the loudspeaker. Having no experience writing for TV, she applies for the job anyway and becomes the “diversity hire.”
Molly’s sweetness and naiveté puts her immediately at odds with almost everyone. There’s not even a chair for her in the writer’s room so she upends a trashcan as a perch. Using her quality-control background, Molly boldly proclaims what she thinks are the reasons the show’s ratings have tanked. No one wants to hear it but Katherine takes some of her suggestions and the show begins to pick up some.
I was pleasantly surprised that the comedy in “Late Night” did not turn crass, as so much comedy does, although the swearing in the film was a bit grating. Rather, I found that I was impressed by the very believable drama that was woven into the story. Thompson’s character has to deal with her husband’s (John Lithgow) diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. She also suffers from depression and low self-esteem. The most poignant scene of film happens between Katherine and her husband, Walter.
Emma Thompson and John Lithgow in "Late Night" (Amazon Studios)
You could tag “Late Night” with many labels. In addition to the obvious, it’s also about forgiveness, standing up for one’s self, and being your authentic self. Molly suggests to Katherine that the best jokes come from a comedian’s personal experience of the ups and downs of life. It’s only when Katherine realizes the truth in this statement that she can let her true self out and become the wife, boss, and comedian she is meant to be.