The hook of the new comedy Late Night is supposed to be the sight of Emma Thompson, as a veteran network talk show host, reacting with flinty skepticism to a scrappy novice writer played by Mindy Kaling, who also wrote the film. But the project’s real promise lies in the fact that confirmed romantic comedy fan Kaling wrote a movie attempting to de-romanticize comedy as a profession.
Kaling starts by interrogating her own set-up. Though the movie takes place in a slightly altered reality where Katherine Newbury (Thompson) became the first woman to host her own major-network late-night show back around the time of Carson’s retirement, the screenplay is also upfront about how a quick wit and a fresh perspective wouldn’t keep her program from becoming a bit stale, as network talk shows often do. Talented and professional as she is, Katherine has her blind spots: race, youth, technology... even, as it turns out, other women. Her writing staff is made up entirely of men, and she’s only bothered to actually meet a handful of them.
Into this semi-toxic environment strides Molly Patel (Kaling), introduced thorough a series of those starry-eyed shots of a plucky heroine making her way through the streets of New York. Molly is a chemical-plant worker with no TV experience who has managed to score an unlikely job interview just as Katherine has abruptly demanded a token woman writer. So of course when the Indian-American Molly gets the job and displaces a prime nepotism candidate in the process, she’s dismissed by the Harvard-bro writers’-room clique as unqualified.
This is all to say that Late Night shows a willingness to dip into the thornier and sometimes contradictory aspects of comedy creation. Katherine Newbury is a “classy role model,” as Molly puts it, even though her show is on canned-joke autopilot. Monologue specialist Tom (Reid Scott) composes jokes with careerist (and elitist) caution, but his put-downs aren’t unfunny. Molly is a talented, eager worker, but she jumps into the writers’ room with no sense of how it operates. About that last point: Kaling is clearly saying that comic talent can come from anywhere, not just the usual Harvard Lampoon privilege factory. But her script gets a little fuzzy on Molly’s background. Her lack of stand-up experience is played as a gag, but later she’s comfortably MCing a comedy show. She claims to be a Katherine Newbury fangirl who’s read multiple books on her talk show, but seems to have little idea about how a talk show is made.
These minor fudges point to a broader problem. Whether it’s due to Kaling’s fondness for the expediency of rom-com wish-fulfillment or to Thompson’s dominance as a performer, the growth Molly supposedly experiences as a first-time writer happens too quickly, too easily to generate much tension. Heartbreaking disappointment, as when Molly gets her first joke into the monologue only to have it skipped in a last-minute panic, gets chased with triumph mere moments later. Molly doesn’t just get another shot at a monologue joke; Katherine decides to use the exact same joke as the opening salvo in her re-commitment to engaged comedy, vindicating her would-be protégé. The fleeting, disposable nature of talk-show joke-writing—of slaving over monologue jokes whose cornball currency expires in a day or two—is never fully acknowledged.
Katherine’s story does have some edge to it, especially because Thompson excels playing a prickly, often isolated entertainer who isn’t sure how to live up to her legend. There have been so relatively few major-network talk show hosts in general that it’s hard to avoid analyzing the Katherine Newbury performer DNA: some David Letterman crankiness, a little Jay Leno complacency, and just a touch of Tom Snyder erudition. But by the end of the film, Thompson has given an amalgam some human dimension—even when she’s engaging in a creative/executive skirmish that plays more Aaron Sorkin than Bill Carter. Like Sorkin, Kaling has such rom-com affection for her characters that she wants to spare them the indignities of loose ends or unresolved feelings.
Late Night is never self-indulgent enough to go the full Studio 60, but its TV roots still show; sometimes it feels like an extended pilot for a gender-flipped adaptation of Funny People, a messier but more daring exploration of similar themes. Director Nisha Ganatra’s impressive resume includes episodes of Girls, The Last Man On Earth, Love, and Dear White People, among many others, and that’s evident in the crispness of her cutting and the briskness of her pacing. But Late Night is actually less cinematically engaging than some of her TV work, with a generic fret-squeaking score and lots of cheesy reaction shots cuing the audience about whether a joke is considered one of the good, refreshing, truth-telling ones, or one of the hacky, half-assed ones.
Then again, the terrible reaction shots are clarifying. Without them, it’s hard to tell the difference between the movie’s ideas of good jokes and bad ones. Despite Molly’s mandate to embrace edgy, political material, Kaling gets a lot of the movie’s biggest laughs from her delivery of more offhand lines. She’s a winning presence, even when the wins come too easily. Late Night is admirably eager to address the messy problems of the comedy world, but it ultimately can’t stop cleaning up after itself.