Written by and starring Mindy Kaling, Late Night is a bit of fluff that skirts around issues of affirmative action, feminism, sexism, toxic work environments, among others, without actually having anything to say about them. Directed by mostly TV helmer Nisha Ganatra, the movie is funny in places, toothless in others, but is anchored by two charismatic performances from Kaling and Emma Thompson.
Kaling is Molly Patel, a factory worker who dreams of writing for her favorite late night talk show, led by the inimitable Katherine Newbury (Thompson), a highbrow, class act institution, whose matronly public persona hides an antagonistic, sexist creamy center. With circumstances that could only exist in a movie, Molly gets her shot when she joins the writing staff, the token female in a room full of established, cranky, and mostly unfunny dudes. With sagging ratings, a TV pres (a wonderful, if limited performance from Amy Ryan) who wants her gone, and a show that has been entertainment by rote, Molly tries to spark a creative resurgence in Newbury.
Thompson, as a sort-of Tina Fey by way of Ellen Degenneres with a little Jon Stewart thrown in, is comfortably engaging in every moment she’s on screen. She has some truly great moments with the bubbly and overly earnest Kaling, and some more grounded and dramatic fare with John Lithgow as her longstanding husband. There’s a scene where Newbury performs an unexpected stand-up routine, first losing the audience and then winning them back with her obvious talent, and it’s a completely believable and engaging moment. Kaling fares less well, as despite her obvious charm, she’s saddled with all the ridiculous and unbelievable plot details from the generally simplistic and cliché-loving Kaling the writer. Supporting turns from Denis O’Hare (solid), Reid Scott (decent), Hugh Dancy (adequate), and Ike Barinholtz (purposefully annoying) should elevate the script, but really only barely keep things moving.
Late Night is worth a few laughs, but little else, and is mostly a smorgasbord of missed opportunity.
My Grade – C+