Late Night stars the illustrious and invaluable Emma Thompson as a veteran late-night talk show host faced with declining ratings, the deteriorating health of her husband (a fine John Lithgow), increasing irrelevance and advancing age.
Her writing staff is of no help, partly because of complacency and partly because they’re too intimidated by her (any hint of rebellion is usually met with a pink slip). In addition, the new network boss (Amy Ryan—at times coming across a little more villainous than the part requires) wants to replace her with a younger, more hip, and more irreverent (read vulgar) comedian. Fortunately, for chemical plant worker/aspiring comedy writer Mindy Kaling (who also wrote the screenplay), Thompson’s search (under duress) for a diversity female hire coincides with Kaling’s interview with Thompson’s producer. Lo and behold, Kaling is the first female in the all-white, all-male writers’ room-and needless to say, she’s got a number of (valid) opinions about the state of the show—and more importantly (after some prodding), how to correct it.
Kaling, the scriptwriter also makes a number of good points about not only the overall state of late night shows, but of the little rivalries that can impinge on quality, the challenges faced by women in an environment usually dominated by men, the difficulty of asserting yourself when a professional criticism might be interpreted as a personal attack, and how indiscretions from the past can haunt you in the present (in an interesting but underdeveloped subplot that puts a spin on “me too.”) Lest I make this sound too ponderous, Late Night is also pretty darn funny, with engaging performances by both Kaling and Thompson. Kaling (aided by her amusing screenplay) projects intelligence, warmth, and more than a modicum of good humor. You root for her to succeed, whether in Thompson’s employ or elsewhere. Thompson is also terrific throughout, whether she is being acerbic, proud brusque, brittle, proud, or contrite and vulnerable. More importantly, Thompson’s comedic chops leave us in no doubt as to the brilliance her character once possessed but now lies dormant—at least until an unexpected appearance at a benefit performance where she rediscovers her values and humanity. The power of that moment makes some of the later plot developments seem forced—however, it is so winningly played by all concerned that the happy ending seems credible and well-deserved.