Late Night starts off a little pat and corny, as it rushes a bit through the introduction of its characters, late night talk show host Katherine Newbury delivering a monologue on her show to an audience laughing plenty, even though the monologue jokes aren’t actually all that funny. Within about five minutes, however, we find Katherine in her writers’ room exclusively full of white guys who treats with either dismissiveness or contempt, and then things get genuinely funny, and remain fairly consistently so through the rest of the movie.
The jokes in Late Night are always best when part of the banter between the show staff, the actual writing they do that we see Katherine perform never quite as good. Thankfully this movie takes place mostly behind the scenes, in a fantasy world where Katherine Newbury is a female contemporary to late night talk show titans like Jay Leno or David Letterman — neither of whom are ever named; we just know that Katherine has been doing the show since 1991, and has won a ton of Emmys for it.
One neat trick, among many, of Mindy Kaling’s script is that it presents a world in which a woman star talk show host is believable, even though no such thing has ever actually happened. If it did, though, it’s easy to see it looking like this, with a white English woman filling the role as a casually cruel perfectionist who doesn’t even realize how little she herself cares for other women.
Emma Thompson is perfectly cast in this role, giving it unique nuance that makes it difficult to imagine anyone else doing it. Pairing her with Kaling, who also stars, doesn’t seem like the most intuitive choice at first, but they have real chemistry together. Of course it doesn’t hurt that Kaling herself has charisma to spare.
Her script, though, is what truly drives Late Night’s undeniably winning sensibility, because Kaling’s Molly Patel so clearly loves television, and that is a clear extension of Kaling herself. Late Night somehow manages to be the least offensive movie to anyone while also acheiving everything it aspires to, which is simply to be a light, entertaining story that touches on industry issues — lack of diversity, sexism — without ever coming even close to being judgmental of the people working in it. In this universe, anyone benefiting from systemic problems is doing so unwittingly.
It’s a smart move from the standpoint of a light comedy, as it acknowledges industry (and cultural) challenges without ever getting mired in it. There’s a certain unbridled joy to Mindy Kaling in particular, which she infuses into all her work. They way she writes her characters — and the way Nisha Ganatra directs the actors playing them — you can’t help but find ways to root for them all, privileged background or not.
There are moments where the amount of detail thrown into the story does feel a little overdone, and certain moments are almost distracting in their oversimplifications. There is no real romantic element to this story, although it gits hinted at in a way that feels it would be better either fleshed out more or done away with altogether. The overall charm of the story, and especially the performances of Kaling and Thompson (who has never been better), more than make up for it.
I wish more could have been done with John Lithgow as Katherine’s ailing but supportive husband, and even Amy Ryan as the network president planning to cancel the show, both of whom do great with what little they’re given. You can’t have everything. The ensemble supporting cast is large enough just with the guys in the writers’ room, which includes Denis O’Hare, Hugh Dancy, Reid Scott, and John Early, not to mention Ike Barinholtz as the boorish comedian presented as Katherine’s potential replacement. There’s some irony to a movie so much about female voices rounding out its cast with so many white men, but even more satisfaction to the two leads being women who get a combined majority of the lines and screen time.
Far more importantly, and as always with comedies, this movie made me laugh — and if a movie is being sold as a comedy, that’s what it should do. Mindy Kaling has a unique comic sensibility, and Emma Thompson a unique comic voice. Late Night didn’t just make me chuckle consistently, as is far more common with most “comedies.” It genuinely made me laugh at a pretty consistent clip, with clever and sophisticated humor that could easily fall flat in lesser hands. It’s just plain a lot of fun, with a large cast of characters who are all enjoyable to be around. I genuinely can’t imagine anyone not enjoying this movie.