Thompson, wearing a Tilda Swinton hairdo, is reliably outstanding as Katherine Newbury, the ill-tempered host of a talk show who, when she learns that she’s about to be put out to pasture, rallies with the reluctant help of the one person on her writing staff who is not a white, 40ish, male with an Ivy League education.
That staffer, Molly, is played by Mindy Kaling, who also wrote “Late Night,” incorporating bits of both lead actors’ real stories: Like her character, Thompson has clinical depression and, like her character, Indian-American Kaling was a so-called “diversity hire” when she first worked in TV as the only female writer on the staff of “The Office,” quickly demonstrating that bringing new voices into a writers’ room can make it funnier, more creative and easier to relate to.
That description makes “Late Night” sound like a “The Devil Wears Prada” knockoff, which it is, complete with a wisecracking, probably-gay sidekick (Denis O’Hare in the Stanley Tucci role). But the diversity element is new, and it gives Kaling more to do than shrink from her boss’ withering wisecracks and call out the privilege of her colleagues, one of whom actually says, “I wish I could get any job I want with zero qualifications.”
As Molly nudges Katherine into the 20th century, the movie demonstrates that fostering diversity is not just the right thing to do, but a smart thing, and it gets in subtle digs at the unfairness of expecting women to do their jobs perfectly while also assuming responsibility for changing the world.
In other words, “It’s not fair, but it never is for women,” as Katherine tells Molly.
As long as it’s in the office setting, the film is on firm ground, but other aspects of it fall flat. Katherine’s relationship with her supportive, ailing husband (John Lithgow) doesn’t make a lick of sense (you know those scenes are bad because, if anyone could make them work, it’s Thompson and Lithgow). Another problem is a stand-up sequence that we’re supposed to believe Katherine improvises and that somehow gets a standing ovation even though it’s only marginally funny.
It doesn’t help that director Nisha Ganatra (making her feature debut after a career in TV) bathes the movie in bright, fluorescent light, as if it all takes place in a middle school cafeteria, or that Thompson’s tacky, sparkly suits make her look like she’s hosting the Oscars for pottery.
What does work — a lot — is Thompson, who conveys wit, intelligence and capability better than just about anyone in the movies today. We’re used to seeing her as authoritative characters, but her women also are usually empathetic (as in “Pride and Prejudice,” “The Children Act” and “Howards End”), so it’s fun to see Thompson sink her incisors into someone Molly refers to as “the least compassionate person I’ve ever met.”
Thompson can deliver a punchline with precision, but when the script needs Katherine to transition from a gorgon who didn’t even realize that one of her staffers disappeared (he died) into a sweetie pie, Thompson can make you believe that, too.
Rating: R, for strong language.
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