Mindy Kaling and Oscar-winner Emma Thompson have been hitting the publicity junket pretty hard for their film Late Night. Unless it’s clear that a film is box office gold, an overly aggressive PR campaign can be a red flag. In this case, I think nervous bean counters in Hollywood decided to do everything they could to get people like me — who would watch Thompson read the phone book — to buy a ticket. As suspected, Late Night is a mixed bag, and while funny and often insightful, viewers may find it fairly thin overall.
Thompson stars as Katherine Newbury, an award-winning, veteran late night talk show host who prefers to have conversations with guests like historian Doris Kearns Goodwin than participate in crazy antics with members of the Avengers: Endgame cast. She’s smart, shrewd and a terror to her writing team — think Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada. After being told that she’s going to be replaced with someone younger and more relevant — ironically, a misogynistic white male, convincingly played by frequent cinematic nice guy Ike Barinholtz (Sisters) — she decides to reinvent the show and demands a female writer for her team. Enter Molly Patel (Kaling, Hulu‘s “The Mindy Project”).
Kaling, who also wrote and produced the movie, intelligently tackles such issues as sexism, white patriarchy and generation gaps. The scenes she shares with the all-white, all-male writing team are particularly telling. Drawing on her own experience as a TV writer, the script brims with humor and wit, though it doesn’t evoke as many laughs as one would expect.
Thompson, however, kills it as Newbury, deliciously enjoying the sharp-tongued role, yet honestly exploring the character’s strengths, shortcomings and even hypocrisies. Kaling and Thompson are supported by a great ensemble that includes John Lithgow, Amy Ryan, Hugh Dancy and Reid Scott (HBO‘s “Veep”).
With so much going for Late Night, it’s disappointing that Kaling’s story structure is surprisingly formulaic. Ultimately, its conventionality undermines the considerable talents of its actors and keeps the overall film from providing a great night.