“Late Night” is about the room where it happens — the writers’ room of a long-running, seriously calcifying late-night talk show, hosted by imperious, aloof Katherine Newbury, played by Emma Thompson. She’s awfully good. And she’s the reason this amiable if frustrating picture is worth seeing.
Katherine’s a familiar television brand. Until recently she has gotten away with not caring much about ratings (falling), the makeup of her writing staff (male, white, justifiably paranoid) or her ability (slim to invisible) to connect with a younger, hipper demographic.
In a blurt of a plot development, with a tough, terse network president (Amy Ryan) breathing down everyone’s necks, Katherine initiates an overdue diversity-initiative hire. Enter Molly Patel, a Pennsylvania chemical plant efficiency expert who does a little stand-up on the side. This is screenwriter Mindy Kaling’s self-tailored role, straight out of her own experience on, among others, “The Office.”
Molly’s resume feels wrong, but her instincts for comedy are right. As Katherine and Molly establish a relationship, hostility and cluelessness give way to a thaw and a gratifying mentor/protégé scenario, complicated by Katherine’s private life (her husband, played by John Lithgow, is coping with Parkinson’s disease) and Molly’s dealings with the show’s smooth, mean head writer (Reid Scott) and a friendlier, caddish Lothario (Hugh Dancy).
There’s a ton of plot in “Late Night,” enough for several half-hours of an ongoing series. Kaling wrote her script with Thompson in mind. Cannily, “Late Night” balances its concerns well between Katherine and Molly. The characters, and the performers, share some nicely seasoned push-and-pull throughout, Thompson’s portrayal offering a steely paragon of confidence masking a complete lack of inner calm.
Kaling, I think, shorts herself in the writing department; Molly’s chipper good nature is a start, but the role feels more sketch-comic than fully realized. Too often in “Late Night” (I’m in the minority on this), the narrative contrivances dictate the behavior. The reversals of fortune feel like easy wish fulfillment.
Is it fair to want more from Kaling and director Nisha Ganatra? The movie gets a lot right: When one ambitious writer bemoans that it’s a lousy time “to be an educated white male,” he sounds like every other young, educated white male conditioned by a skewed sense of privilege. Thompson is perfect as the besieged late-night queen; in so much of her screen work across the decades, she has brought wit and sparkle to dramatic stories and an arrestingly honest and bittersweet quality to comedies. She brings out the best in every scene, every line, every non-verbal “tell.”
“Late Night” is, of course, a fantasy: In the real world, none of the once-upon-a-time Big 3 networks took a chance on a female-driven late-night talk show. Kaling doesn’t settle for outlandish villains or shameless stereotypes. She’s smart enough not to demonize any of the men, though the writers in that room where it happens are, by and large, narcissists and whiners.
Part of me wonders if Kaling didn’t shave off a few too many edges getting “Late Night” into filmable, amiable, commercial shape. And a different part of me wonders: With Thompson, especially, and supporting ringers such as Denis O’Hare (as Katherine’s peerlessly dry producer), why worry about what’s missing here? Some comedies are just serious enough to say something about where we are now and where we aren’t. They tell a little truth while reformulating a few wish-fulfillment fantasies.
And, if they’re lucky, they have Emma Thompson leading the way.