Watching Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling mix it up in Late Night will make you think you’ve died and gone to hilarity heaven. In Kaling’s woke script, the Oscar-winning British actress for Howards End plays Katherine Newbury, a late-night talk show host who takes a drastic step to stop her slide in the ratings. She hires Molly Patel (Kaling playing a shrewd variation of her TV persona), the first female to penetrate Katherine’s writing staff of white dudes. Too bored to remember their names, she assigns them all numbers. Charlie (Hugh Dancy), the writer who the married Katherine’s been bonking on the side, gets more than numerical attention. What we’ve have here is a one-woman dictatorship. Out of that simple, sometimes simplistic premise, Thompson, Kaling and up-for-anything director Nisha Ganatra spin comic gold.
The long-time lack of a female host on late-night speaks to the story’s relevance, but the film goes further by showing how Katherine has spent years in the trenches without helping other women rise in the ranks. Kaling, who struggled to build her own sitcom (The Mindy Project), knows about career obstacles to women and people of color. She also knows something needs to be done to fix it.
In outline, Late Night is a variation on The Devil Wears Prada with a lady boss striking fear into the hearts of her staff. Like Meryl Streep in that hit office comedy, Thompson can fire off one-liners with a lethal deadpan that takes no prisoners. The reliably terrific Denis O’Hare plays Brad, her harried second-in-command, who jumps when Katherine orders him to get a woman on staff pronto. The diversity hire he comes up with is Indian-American Molly, a chemical-plant efficiency expert from suburban Pennsylvania with no writing experience. What Molly does have as a fan of the show is the idea that Katherine can re-ignite her career simply by being herself.
And who’s that exactly? A woman who’s devoted 28 years to her talk show only to be told her days are numbered by network VP Caroline Morton (Amy Ryan) and that she’s about to be replaced by a male idiot (Ike Barinholtz) whose personality consists exclusively of noxious “bro” clichés. While Katherine does “stuffy” interviews with author Doris Kearns Goodwin, Fallon brings on “adorable” Robert Downey Jr. to wash a sheepdog. It’s late night as a new vast wasteland and the movie makes black-comic sport of it. Thompson lets us feel Katherine’s horror during an interview with a dim-witted YouTube star who delights in sniffing her dog’s butt. Sensing Katherine’s disdain, the airhead calls her the worst word possible word in an on-camera profession: “old.”
It’s Molly’s idea to make that word work in Katherine’s favor. Talk to her audience honestly, about age, menopause and the fear of being replaced. Katherine is intensely private about her marriage to loyal Walter (a stellar John Lithgow), an emeritus NYU professor suffering from Parkinson’s disease. But when the tabloids implicate her in a sex scandal and embarrassing private emails are leaked, Katherine has only two choices: accept becoming ratings poison or fight back.
One guess about her decision. The romantic subplots in Late Night, one involving Molly and the aforementioned Charlie, are afterthoughts that drag down the momentum. Late Night lights up when Kaling puts her female warriors in the center ring and lets them rip. The actor-screenwriter is too savvy for tirades. But there’s no mistaking the heat in her subversive wit. And when the glorious Thompson (it’s high time for another Oscar) starts tossing Kaling’s verbal grenades like a virtuoso, this workplace satire is just the pointed fun we need.