If we know one thing about Emma Thompson, it’s that she plays comically snarky characters with ease. Her Dr. Rawlings in Bridget Jones’ Baby and Prime Minister in Johnny English Strikes Again bear witness to that. Praise be, she’s finally been given a role in which she can truly unleash her very own Miranda Priestley on the world. That said, the much-loved British actress also pulls off serious subject matter with aplomb, which stands her in good stead for the more heartfelt aspects of this comedy-drama.
In Late Night, directed by Nisha Ganatra (You Me Her), Thompson plays Katherine Newbury, the complacent host of a long-running late-night US talk show. She may be celebrated, but plummeting ratings cause ruthlessly pragmatic network chief Caroline Morton (Amy Ryan) to seek a replacement in chauvinistic comedian Daniel Tennant (Ike Barinholtz). As a result, the hard-nosed misanthrope is forced to reconsider her options. Looking at her entirely male, white, middle-class writing team – of her own making, it must be said – she realizes something’s gotta give. And that’s when Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling), a former chemical plant efficiency expert and budding comedy writer, bumbles onto the scene with all her Indian-American, box-ticking diversity. Her fresh, boundary-free outlook might just yank Katherine from her stuffy comfort zone, teaching the old dog – or, as one magazine names her, “your least favorite aunt” – a career-reviving trick or two.
On top of taking the part of Molly, Kaling is also behind the film’s script. With a wad of TV writing credits under her belt, including loveable comedy The Mindy Project, she’s more than qualified to put together a story about the struggle of women in one of many industries close to a patriarchal boy’s club. But while Late Night is topical in such a respect, it never feels like a needlessly fiery assault on men and the privilege they so often take for granted.
Sadly though, a couple of subplots in Kaling’s freshman feature do lean towards the gratuitous, namely those involving the love lives of its protagonists. The same can be said about the stack of social commentary slammed down in front of the audience. Some of this has a real sense of cogency, but much of it doesn’t feel consistent with the tale being told. Both aspects of the movie are somewhat excess to requirement, working in conjunction to mildly subdue an otherwise lively, funny narrative.
Thompson slips into the role of scathingly horrible boss so comfortably we wonder if she might have been one in a past life. Every cold glare and every caustic one-liner Katherine delivers would cause the toughest of us to shrivel, but moments of tenderness offer her character some balance. Kaling’s pleasant but pushy Molly makes for the perfectly antithetical underdog in this plausible odd couple, her cleverly subtle brand of comedy shaking things up. Many of the jokes nod strongly to 30 Rock, and it’s apparent Kaling and Tina Fey have something in common humor-wise.
All in, Late Night is an undemanding, yet entertaining comedy-drama penned by a writer close to the top of her game. In Kaling’s next screenplay, greater clarity in terms of themes and a stronger focus on either comedy or drama – or at least a more compelling mixture of the two – will jack her right up.