Late Night
Directed by Nisha Ganatra
Starring: Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, John Lithgow, Hugh Dancy, Reid Scott
Rated R for language throughout and some sexual references
1 hr. 42 min.

Early TV viewers started losing sleep to talk shows in the 1950s with a mirth-maker named Steve Allen, co-creator and first host of The Tonight Show. The form exploded, with five years of conversation and outsized emotion from Jack Paar, then was honed to enduring excellence by Johnny Carson. Since Carson’s 1992 retirement, there have been ratings leaders, but no one man has assumed the mantle as late-night TV’s King.

Note the language. No one man. The plot of Mindy Kaling’s Late Night focuses on a woman who has hosted a nightly show following prime time for 28 years, and now finds her ratings ebbing and her content losing relevance in the national zeitgeist.

The strength of Kaling’s writing lies not just in the jokes, which land with bite. She amplifies the fact that keeping a late-night show fresh is difficult, whether the host is male or female, and that, for diversity’s sake, sledgehammers must still be taken to this profession’s walls.

Kaling wrote the part of Katherine Newbury, the acerbic, smooth, increasingly out-of-touch host, for Emma Thompson, who employs her British, stiff-upper-lip wit to perfection. Kaling plays Molly Patel, the amusing, chemical-plant-employee-come-writer who might be Katherine’s biggest fan.

A tough network president, Caroline Morton (Amy Ryan, always a delight, and without pity in this role) tells Katherine her act is stale, and her guests (like California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who does not appear in the film), are not attracting younger audiences. She’ll have one year left on the show, before she’s supplanted. Katherine later finds out that her intended replacement is a crass, millennial potty mouth named Daniel Tennant (Ike Barinholtz, The Mindy Project). 

Having seen Tennant’s act, Katherine decides to fight for her job, and gets to know her writers. One is Molly, recently hired to stave off criticism that Katherine hates women. It’s an old-boys club, alright. They’ve never seen the show from the stage, and Katherine refers to them by number, not name. Her learning curve is steep, not easy, but amusing, all the way.

Late Night, directed by Nisha Ganatra (Transparent) is funny, charming and touching. Katherine’s husband, Walter, is affectingly played by John Lithgow, master of all on-screen moods. He and Molly bring the sardonic Katherine down to earth. The writers, among them Reid Scott as Tom and Hugh Dancy as Charlie, run a writing room that grovels at Katherine’s feet while slowly accepting Molly’s presence. Burditt (Max Casella) shows more heart than the others, while Charlie, a stand-up comic, eyes Molly as a potential conquest.

Kaling, a writer as well as co-star on The Office, and creator of The Mindy Project, takes liberally from the actual late-night world and the politics of the writer’s room: nepotism, favoritism toward the Ivy League-educated, the relevance of what goes viral and what doesn’t, and vulgar new comics without nuance yet loads of cache. The lack of diversity stands out, though all are equal parts of Late Night’s tapestry. Joan Rivers’ and Chelsea Handler’s short tenures notwithstanding, no female role model exists for Katherine’s character. It stands to reason, then, that there are times when you may be convinced that Katherine is a female, British David Letterman — there are points that mirror highs and lows of Dave’s professional and personal life. You can be sure, however, that Katherine Newbury, in her Billy Idol haircut, will not soon grow Santa’s beard, as Dave has in retirement.

A smash at the Cannes Film Festival, Late Night has struggled at the box office, which is unfortunate. Not only will you enjoy the devastating wit, you’ll see two women with disparate lives bond. It would be hard not to feel the Late Night love.