Late Night (Nisha Ganatra, 2019) 3 out of 4 stars.
From writer/star Mindy Kaling (The Mindy Project) comes a charming, if uneven, new comedy, Late Night, about the lone female late-night talk-show host whose time in the spotlight may be waning. Played by the great Emma Thompson (Alone in Berlin), Katherine Newbury is a television icon possessed of an acerbic wit and zero empathy who must finally learn how to get along with others if she wants to remain on the air. Kaling plays Molly Patel, a new writer whom Katherine feels compelled to hire when her long-suffering producer, Brad (Denis O’Hare, The Pyramid), suggests that she doesn’t get along with other women. Though Molly has very little experience writing professionally, she is nevertheless hired, overjoyed to work for her idol. What seems like a wonderful opportunity quickly sours, however, as she confronts the all-male writer’s room and Katherine’s obnoxiousness. Will she adapt, or get others to adapt to her? And will Katherine survive in her post? All is revealed by the end …
Kaling has a fine sense of timing within each scene, her jokes delivered nicely within director Nisha Ganatra’s mostly competent mise-en-scène. Unfortunately, though individual sequences sparkle, the narrative progression between them is sometimes lumbering. The affair often feels like a feature-length sitcom, overstuffed beyond what its structure can handle, with a mushy score that helps nothing. And yet the central performances, of both Kaling and Thompson, along with solid supporting work from O’Hare, Reid Scott (Dan Egan on Veep) and others, keeps the film from ever being less than engaging.
On top of that, Kaling writes some sharp, incisive moments examining racial and gender stereotypes that are both funny and deeply necessary in our current times. Katherine Newbury may be a pain in the neck, but is she any less so than the men who dominate the business? If they get away with being jerks (and sexist, to boot), why can’t she? On the other hand, there’s nothing wrong with taking the high road, and Molly sets an example of kindness for all to follow, despite the harassment she faces as a person of color and a woman. Late Night, missteps and all, makes you laugh (sometimes out loud!) and think, and that’s no small achievement.