There’s a voice in Late Night so sharp it could cut itself, and a core cast so winning you’ll forgive the softie plotting that blunts it. This is the Nisha Ganatra directed new comedy by writer, producer and star Mindy Kaling, who plays the ‘token woman of colour’ brought in to save Emma Thompson’s erstwhile pioneering late night talk show host, Katherine Newbury, from absolute televisual collapse. Gloriously astute to the self-pitying moral crisis of the white wing in a diversifying world, the film lands its fair share of laugh out loud moments before dawn.
Thompson’s Newbury, though effective, hasn’t really a direct modern counterpart. Perhaps Letterman at a push? Her accent is that of James Cordon – the British invasion a brief reference early on – but her format more Newsnight than late-night. Yet, that’s precisely the problem. Whilst she glares disparagingly down at the rise of crass comic Daniel Tennant (Ike Barinholtz), Katherine exposes her waned relationship with the modern world. Her show lacks zing, is devoid of viral appeal and regularly hits misses with guests too highbrow to resonate with audiences after a laugh. Behind the scenes, new studio exec Caroline Morton (Amy Ryan) wants her out by the season’s close. Ten years of stale writing, from an all-white, all-male writing room has collapsed Katherine’s ratings, whilst a reputation for hard nosed misogyny backstage has done her no favours. Unwilling to go without a fight, Katherine hatches a plan: ‘we need to hire a woman’. At the expense of an incumbent naturally: ‘obviously you’ll have to go’.
Thus, in patters Kaling’s unlikely Asian-American hero Molly Patel, a chemical plant efficiency expert from suburban Pennsylvania without a jot of relevant experience. Sweet but ambitious and a little unwieldy, Molly has as much to learn as she can teach the older, not so much wiser, Katherine. First, though, she must overcome accusations that she has not actually earned her place on the team through merit, whilst finding a brittle balance with those ivy-league resistors around her. It’s out with the old – boring interviews with admirable journalists and public figures – and in the with the new – genuinely inspired features about white saviours and abuse of media power – all communicated, predictably, via montage. Late Night is essentially a chalk and cheese, platonic, workplace romcom in which the working women are mercifully not mortal enemies. As it transpires, Katherine’s loathing is not reserved solely for those of her own gender.
Entirely lost in Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time, Kaling’s glowing personality shines bright here. Her Molly is hopelessly empathetic but in such a way as to never feel too Bridget Jones to buy. Having worked previously on America’s The Office, Kaling brings a knowing ear for TV writers’ room sexism into play – evidentially from experience – and prods genially at the glass ceiling throughout. Honestly, you’d expect a harsher vindication from a former insider-outsider but the jibes land regardless. Late Night’s social commentary may toy in familiar territory but there’s no denying Kaling’s acute contemporaneity. Note in one scene the hypocrisy of Molly’s white, male colleagues as they complain that women of colour are being prioritised by HR these days: ‘it’s staggering how unfair it is’. Funny but very much on the money.
Purveying all, Thompson offers just her latest superior turn in a career full of them. Katherine has the stately presence of The Children Act’s Justice May and the withering disparagement of P. L. Travers. The sharp delivery of smart one liners, meanwhile, is all Thompson. Less dramatically successful is Katherine’s relationship with her – allegedly dying husband Walter, who is played by John Lithgow. Whilst sparks fly and resonance emits from scenes pitting Thompson with Kaling, Lithgow feels cursory, often forgotten and rather wasted. Could it be that his inclusion is simply to facilitate the dramatic slump of the second half? Almost certainly. Late Night might often soar but the whiff of contrivance belies a plot construction Kaling can’t quite smooth out. Ganatra, at least, shoots all with clean, effective elegance.
Late Night is, by some way, among the better of this century’s workplace comedies and should fare well with audiences. Ideally, it will prove a springboard for Kaling and a raft of equally funny features.