Late Night depicts two women who find themselves marginalized for two very different reasons. Runaway success, coupled with her own insulated ego, has rendered talk-show host Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) into an inert and irrelevant figure. Molly (Mindy Kaling), Katherine’s newest writer, has to prove herself as more than a mere “diversity hire,” while also silencing the smirking sarcasm of her frat boy colleagues. Late Night has a similarly difficult task: It has to make its point without sermonizing, be funny without resorting to the easy punchlines, and build enough dramatic ballast without being too cornball. The movie doesn’t quite nail it across the board, but Kaling and her cohorts deliver an intelligent and provocative film that stands above most of the other summer fare.
The film sets up Katherine as a friendless, frozen individual who identifies her staff by numbers instead of names, much like someone ordering off a fast food menu. Her cruel confidence has radiated throughout the show itself, stalling the production in a creative doldrum. An outgoing employee slams Katherine as a woman-hating feminist, a poisonous dart that seeps into her blood. She presses her handlers to bring a woman aboard her all-male crew, no matter what it takes.
Enter Molly Patel, fresh from a Mary Tyler Moore-style romp through Manhattan. She glides through her job interview with the guileless glee of a true bumpkin. Molly doesn’t have any professional experience, but she does knock ’em dead over the intercom at the chemical plant where she works. Molly gets the job because she’s a woman, an Indian, and present in the building, all at the same time. Unfortunately, these factors also doom her to suffer in silence, as the insufferable clique of Harvard Lampooners label her as nothing more than a lucky fool. It turns out that Molly has a talent for telling truth to power, and her blunt criticisms quickly knock Katherine off her creative axis. With the threat of forced retirement looming, both women slowly realize that they can fill a symbiotic need in each other’s lives.
I remember reading an article about Saturday Night Live, set during its mid-90s slump. It detailed the struggle within the writers’ room, as an established head writer had to wrangle the freewheeling cockiness of Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, David Spade, etc. The show had sagged because so many of its participants believed that all they had to do was show up. Late Night does a great job of depicting a similar complacency, wherein Katherine must confront the fact her own tires are spinning in the same mud. Kaling, who wrote the script, captures the alternately tedious and terrifying atmosphere of late night television with spot-on perfection.
Kaling and Thompson deliver knock-out performances as two women who must professionally complete each other: Just as Molly must convince Katherine to become more relatable by stripping the varnish from her public persona, Katherine’s withering criticisms force Molly to grow more polished and assertive. Both of these transformations are compelling to watch, as is Katherine’s fractured relationship with her ailing husband (John Lithgow). Amy Ryan also scores as the network’s shrewd president, who also might be the only woman who can match Katherine in a contest of lethal put-downs. Late Night features outstanding performances from top to bottom.
All this analysis probably makes the film seem a lot drier than it really is. Late Night is actually a damn funny movie, especially when it brings the sting of truth. Both leads land their jokes with impeccable comic timing, whether that humor is sharp and scathing or big and broad. The movie grows a little soggy in its second half, and even at 102 minutes, it feels long. Still, I gotta say it: It’s a refreshing reminder of what good actors can do with a script that isn’t afraid to be funny and smart at the same time.
102 min. R.