The dearth of female late-night talk show hosts has been noticeable for many years, but it has taken on extra significance lately. So when Mindy Kaling, who’s displayed sharp writing on both The Office and The Mindy Project, decided to take the issue head-on with Late Night, with no less than Emma Thompson in a lead role, expectations were high.
Thompson plays Katherine Newbury, the longtime host of Tonight with Katherine Newbury. Faced with sagging ratings and a general sense of being out of touch with the zeitgeist, Newbury orders her executive producer, Brad (Denis O’Hare), to hire a woman to diversify her all-white, all-male writing team. Enter Molly Patel (Kaling), a chemical plant worker who finds out about the job opening thanks to some corporate synergy.
Patel is bubbly and idealistic, traits which clash with the cynical writing team and the standoffish Newbury. But as Patel continues to bring a new perspective to the daily grind that comes with writing a talk show, she slowly but surely starts to earn the respect of her fellow writers and Newbury, even if that respect doesn’t come in the form she expects.
Written by Kaling and directed by TV veteran Nisha Ganatra, the film moves at a pace that is unexpectedly fast, skipping many narrative steps along the way. Many scenes move at such breakneck speed that the audience barely has time to register what happened before the film is on to something else. The cost of such a strategy is that connections between characters are lost, denying them and the audience the emotions that are earned when a film spends more time establishing relationships.
Certain other narrative choices feel like missed opportunities, as well. Most prominent is Patel being a novice writer working in an unrelated field instead of being an underseen comedian. It’s extremely odd that, given the number of female comedians in the world, the show wouldn’t automatically scour the comedy clubs around New York City for undiscovered talent instead of turning to someone with no experience whatsoever.
The cast, which also includes John Lithgow, Hugh Dancy, Ike Barinholtz, Amy Ryan, and more, makes the film pop even when the story is not up to snuff. The chemistry of the writing staff is palpable, and Thompson elevates every scene she’s in despite not being a natural comedian. Kaling is an appealing protagonist who’s easy to root for even though she wrote herself a relatively thin role.
Late Night had the potential to break out with some pointed commentary about how women are treated in the entertainment industry, but it falls short at almost every turn. Kaling is a true talent; it’s just too bad that this movie doesn’t demonstrate her unique ability.