Workplace comedies tend to play better on television than in movies, for the basic reason that TV allows great depth to be developed over the course of multiple seasons. Nevertheless, writer/producer/star Mindy Kaling and director Nisha Ganatra hit a home run with Late Night. Kaling, of course, cut her teeth as a writer and actress on The Office, so this is territory she knows well. An added personal thematic touch is what elevates it far above the norm.
Emma Thompson, in one of the finest performances of the year, plays Katherine Newbury, the host of a late night comedy talk show. Despite her continual quest for excellence, the show's ratings are in decline. Katherine would rather interview Doris Kearns Goodwin than Robert Downey, Jr. As such, a network executive (Amy Ryan) is considering firing her.
Following criticism that her writing staff is comprised of nothing but white males, she orders her producer (Denis O'Hare) to hire a woman of color. He brings in Molly Patel (Kaling), a chemical plant worker who has an obsession with comedy but no actual television experience. Molly has trouble fitting in and, like the other writers, is intimidated by Katherine's uptight, uber-critical ways. She does, however, seem to have a grasp on what her boss needs to do differently in order to improve ratings and avoid getting the ax.
Late Night is all different kinds of good. On one level, it succeeds as a modern-day cinematic Larry Sanders Show, capturing the backstage insanity at a talk show. Kaling's screenplay intentionally calls to mind well-documented incidents involving David Letterman and Jay Leno. It also reveals the machinations of a writers room where everyone is jockeying for the approval of a demanding, rarely-satisfied boss. The way Katherine berates her staff – she calls them by numbers so she doesn't have to remember their names – is hilarious, as are Molly's attempts to encourage a more contemporary style of humor.
Kaling has more on her mind than just office shenanigans, though. As she's stated in interviews, she was a diversity hire on The Office. Through hard work and determination, she became one of that classic sitcom's MVPs, both in front of and behind the camera. Late Night is very much about Molly trying to work a similar scenario to her favor. In the process, the film strongly argues in favor of diversity hires, suggesting that an influx of new ideas and new perspectives inherently improves the quality of work because it eliminates group-think. Centering everything else around that basic premise gives the movie a thoughtful quality to match its comedy value.
The script, as one would expect from Kaling, is sharp, filled with laugh-getting dialogue and snappy one-liners. Even the supporting characters she creates are richly drawn. At the center is the observant relationship between Katherine and Molly. The former may be hard to please, but she's intelligent enough to know when her employee's criticisms are on point. These characters go from being adversarial, to working together fruitfully, to bordering on becoming friends.
In a career filled with amazing performances, this may be Thompson's best. The actress makes it apparent that Katherine has a well of insecurity underneath her blunt exterior. For decades, she's given everything to the show, so the possibility of losing it is threatening; it would mean losing a big part of herself. In Thompson's hands, we like Katherine, even when she's not particularly nice. Kaling is terrific, too, convincingly showing how Molly's self-doubt evolves into self-confidence. They're backed by an able supporting cast that includes John Lithgow as Katherine's husband and all the actors portraying the writers. There just isn't a single miscast or forgettable actor here.
Late Night is consistently funny and engagingly smart. It makes you laugh and think in equal measure. From start to finish, the movie is a complete delight.
out of four
Late Night is rated R for language throughout and some sexual references. The running time is 1 hour and 42 minutes.