Mindy Kaling has written perfectly-tailored starring roles for herself and the great Emma Thompson in Late Night, a smart comedy that manages to be relevant without forgetting to be funny. Thompson is thoroughly believable as the longtime star of a late-night TV talk show—the only woman to hold that kind of job, we’re told. But her ratings have been falling off as she has become distant from her audience and unwilling to court younger viewers.
Kaling plays a would-be standup comic and comedy writer who lands an interview with Thompson’s producer (Denis O’Hare) just as the host, who’s under the gun from her network boss, demands that he hire a woman to augment their all-male, all-white writing staff.
Thompson is imperious and inflexible, yet there is something about the plain-spoken Kaling that commands her attention. In time, even the star has to admit that her show needs shaking up, and this outspoken newcomer may be part of the solution.
Late Night makes its points about diversity, gender bias, and the ruthlessness of the television business with a light touch and a beating heart. The characters are fully fleshed out, not caricatures as they easily might have been. There are plum parts for John Lithgow, Hugh Dancy, Reid Scott, Max Casella, and Ike Barinholtz. They all have good scenes, but they are decidedly in support of the two leads. Kaling is disarmingly good as the eager newbie who knows she’s been hired as a token, and Thompson is ideal as an arrogant woman who turns out to be as tough on herself as she is on everyone around her. Experienced TV comedy director Nisha Ganatra knows how to make the most of every scene and orchestrates her ensemble with apparent ease.
Late Night reflects the world as it ought to be, even if that isn’t always the case in real life. But wish-fulfillment has always been a key ingredient in entertaining movies, and this one is no exception.