“Your earnestness can be hard to be around,” says the cynical talk-show host (Emma Thompson) to the eager new joke writer (Mindy Kaling).
I know what she means. This movie’s sincere do-gooder attitude takes the edge off its better jokes. As funny as it is, you might find yourself wishing for something subversive to happen.
“Late Night,” also scripted by Kaling, is set in the realm of the long-reigning Katherine Newbury, an acerbic Brit who has outlived her glory years in the talk-show biz.
Her declining ratings have led to warning from the network boss (Amy Ryan), and an ultimatum to bring in new writing. It wouldn’t hurt if the new talent were a woman of color, which is where Molly Patel (Kaling) comes in.
Newbury’s all-male writing staff bristles at the newcomer, and so does Newbury herself, whose non-existent relationship with the staff has her referring to the writers by numbers rather than names. She’s got work to do on rehabbing her habits in general.
For about two-thirds of its running time, “Late Night” provides smart, rapid observations about television. Director Nisha Ganatra has extensive TV credits, and Kaling (a veteran of the TV world, with long-running shows like “The Office” and “The Mindy Project”) brings the little details that ring true — the funny stuff as well as the pervasive sexism.
The supporting cast includes a batch of capable comic actors, most of whom are known only by numbers. There’s also John Lithgow, as Newbury’s patient husband, and Denis O’Hare — one of those splendid character actors who never get enough credit for elevating every scene they’re in — as Newbury’s even more patient producer.
Emma Thompson is a queen of our times, and I was greatly looking forward to seeing her stretch out in a big role. She delivers, but there’s something squashy about the conception of the character. Maybe that’s because even when Katherine Newbury behaves dreadfully, we know she’ll come around and be a better person by the end. This might be a measure of the difference between biting British humor and the softer American variety.
Kaling makes a delightful heroine; her persona is so chirpy you barely notice how skillfully she flings the zingers around. Refreshingly, her screenplay makes clear that romance is not the default setting for a movie with a female protagonist.
Alas, after its enjoyable first hour, “Late Night” takes a plot turn that has little to do with the rest of the film and seems to exist in order to provide a more conventional final act. You can practically see the wind leaving the movie’s sails, and everything’s neatly wrapped-up after that.
Maybe Kaling belongs in TV, where you can be more daring than in movies. Same goes for Emma Thompson, who deserves a longform series of her own — sharp edges and all.
“Late Night” (2½ stars)
An acerbic talk-show host (Emma Thompson) with declining ratings takes on a young new staff writer (Mindy Kaling, who also scripted). There some some smart, rapid observations about TV (and its pervasive sexism) here, and Thompson and Kaling are fun to watch. Alas, the plot takes a conventional turn in its final act, wrapping things up in a too-tidy package.
Rating: R, for language