As the latest in a string of Hollywood comedies featuring fresh female voices, Late Night debuts strong but can’t maintain its ratings.
In satirizing a male-dominated industry and the resulting glass ceiling, the film showcases the feisty wit and emerging talent of rookie screenwriter Mindy Kaling, even if it ultimately generates more wry smiles than big laughs.
Kaling stars as Molly, an efficiency expert at a chemical company with dreams of making it big in comedy. Her unlikely break comes from Katherine (Emma Thompson), an acerbic talk-show host desperate to combat a slide into stale irrelevance.
Her impulsive decision to add longtime fan Molly is ridiculed in her all-male writers’ room, forcing the newcomer to prove that she’s not just a diversity hire. Meanwhile, Katherine is dealing with other problems, such as the illness of her husband (John Lithgow), the corporate threat to replace her with a hip Internet star (Ike Barinholtz), and a scandal of her own making.
Their effort to make the show more personal and relatable carries high stakes for both women, trying to carve a niche in a bottom-line profession hardly known for gender equality.
Kaling’s screenplay, apparently inspired in part by Working Girl, containing plenty of underlying truths about sexism, ageism, fame, office politics, and corporate greed in the social-media age. Already having carved out a successful career in the sitcom world — on both sides of the camera — she’s obviously able to write from experience.
Thompson might not seem like an obvious casting choice, but conveys the necessary charisma and comic timing. The gossipy question is whether the cold-hearted yet frequently hilarious Katherine is based on anyone in particular, which is difficult to discern. If anything, she’s probably just a gender-swapped composite.
Directed by television veteran Nisha Ganatra (Chutney Popcorn), the film generally works best in character-driven moments when Thompson and Kaling share the screen. Their amusingly honest dynamic becomes obscured by plot exaggerations and contrivances in the second half, while a refreshing perspective on affirmative action turns muddled.
The film deserves credit for not being afraid to make its two leading women vulnerable and unsympathetic, and for not providing a simple path to empowerment. However, Kaling’s edgy strengths feel softened by this watered down and predictable crowd-pleaser. By the end, Late Night is already in reruns.