If you enjoy smart comedies with lots of heart, you’re going to want to see “Late Night.” Mindy Kaling wrote, produced and stars in the film as Molly Patel, an earnest chemical plant employee who ends up on an all-male writing team for a late-night talk show looking for a female hire. The show’s host, Katherine Newbury, is a groundbreaking female comic who’s fighting irrelevancy. Emma Thompson brilliantly portrays Katherine, giving her complexity and nuance. Both she and Kaling shine, backed by a strong supporting cast, as they serve up laughs with a subtle dose of social commentary.
Thompson is engaging and entirely believable as an unapologetic late-night legend with razor-sharp wit. Thompson’s Katherine holds an authority reminiscent of Meryl Streep’s Miranda in “The Devil Wears Prada.” For example, when Katherine gets the news that the network will be replacing her, she steps into her writers’ room for the first time in a long time. Katherine doesn’t know most of their names and deems learning them unnecessary, assigning them numbers instead. They scramble to earn her favor, which is no surprise considering the rate at which she nonchalantly fires them. On the flip side, Thompson does a good job of humanizing Katherine, keeping her from becoming the “tough boss” trope. Katherine’s invested in two things in life: her husband Walter (played by John Lithgow) and her show. It’s with the former that she shows a more vulnerable side, keeping her humor but losing some of the acerbity. As the story unfolds, Thompson expertly navigates Katherine’s personal growth as she learns to value women in the workplace and how to genuinely care for her team.
Thompson’s dry delivery makes her jokes land with impressive accuracy as she deadpans her zingers. The comedy also works because Thompson keeps Katherine grounded throughout the film; her embodiment of the character might best be described as a female British David Letterman. Only on one occasion does Thompson’s performance fall flat. A heavy scene between Katherine and Walter plays out with overwrought emotion and falls into melodrama. This misstep is forgotten when Thompson masterfully delivers her final monologue. She gives an impressive performance overall.
Molly is a hard worker, but she’s also incredibly naive and a little lacking in the self-confidence department. She’s a refreshing twist on characters Kaling has played in the past like Kelly Kapoor from “The Office” or Mindy Lahiri from “The Mindy Project,” both of whom project a certain boldness as a cover for their anxieties. Molly, on the other hand, does the opposite, leading with her insecurities. On her first day at work, she elects to sit on a trash can because seats are limited, and on her second day, she cries under her desk until a co-worker intervenes.
But moments of real strength emerge, and Kaling effortlessly blends them into the overall character of Molly: a fish-out-of-water who’s willing to stand up for her convictions. Kaling’s written multiple scenes in the film where Molly shuts down white men complaining about the unfairness of taking steps toward inclusion in the workplace. As an actor, Kaling brings both levity and humor to these moments. Even though Molly might not be much of a stretch for Kaling to play, she still entertains the audience while tackling important issues, and her overall performance is a strong one.
Maribeth Fox hit it out of the park with her casting on “Late Night.” John Lithgow brings depth to his supporting role as Walter, and John Early stands out as a hilarious member of Katherine’s writing team. But it’s the two leading ladies who really deliver. Kaling and Thompson make for a dynamic comedy duo, one that manages to sneak in an important message between their one-liners.