Tackling issues of sexism, race, and gender politics in the television industry, "Late Night" couldn't be timelier, and though it could have used a sharper bite, the filmmakers deserves credit for weaving those serious, hot-button issues into such a breezy, enjoyable comedy.
The great Emma Thompson stars as Katherine Newbury, a trailblazing comedian who for 28 years has been the host her own late night talk show. But over time she's grown complacent, and her audience has been able to tell, resulting in ten years of a steady ratings decline.
Katherine's been able to coast by, but with the arrival of a new network president (the always wonderful Amy Ryan) she suddenly finds her job in real jeopardy for the first time. The new executive is frustrated by Katherine's refusal to cater to a mainstream audience, and expresses a desire to replace her with a popular dude-bro stand-up comic (played by Ike Barinholtz).
In an effort to save herself, Katherine tasks her second-in-command (Denis O'Hare) with finding her a female writer -- anyone will do -- to combat bad press and shake up her exclusively white, male writing staff. Enter Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling, who also wrote the screenplay), a spunky, yet completely inexperienced aspiring comedian. But she gets the gig, leaving behind her job in a Pennsylvania chemical plant to pursue her dream job.
It's not easy going, and Molly faces resistance from her entitled male colleagues, led by monologue writer Tom (Reid Scott). She sets about desperately trying to prove herself in order to avoid being seen as a token "diversity hire," though no one hesitates in telling her to her face that that's exactly what she is.
Molly's fresh, modern perspective might just be what Katherine needs. The two women's contentious relationship follows the trajectory of a standard rom-com, with a platonic, professional connection instead of the traditional romantic one. Drawing on her early experience as an intern on Conan O'Brien's talk show, Kaling creates a convincingly realized behind-the-scenes world. There's a "The Devil Wears Prada" feel to her script, also focusing on an ambitious woman faced with a powerful, impossibly demanding female boss.
But the film plays things safe, and considering the late night comedy milieu and Kaling's background, I longed for something with a bit more teeth. Her script is earnest almost to a fault, and it's perhaps too generous to some of its characters, most of whom could use a good skewering.
The film's best feature is a powerhouse performance from Thompson, who plays Katherine with a cold, blustery exterior that masks some deep-seated insecurities. There's an intriguing scene between the two women as they discuss their experiences with depression that I'd have preferred to see explored, as opposed to the side plot involving Katherine's relationship with her ailing husband (John Lithgow), which feels unnecessary.
The film boasts a pro-diversity message that's easy to get behind, but that's also the film's main drawback. There's a tendency toward quick resolutions and happy endings that might have been a chance to say something more interesting. But when the jokes keep coming, the pleasures of Kaling and Thompson's prickly chemistry provides enough enjoyment to carry us through.