“Late Night” could not be more timely. Mindy Kaling’s comedy about the role of women (and women of color) in the television industry strikes swiftly and precisely while the iron is hot and the conversation is topical. Written with the kind of specificity Kaling has mined from years of working in TV, it feels like it’s pulling back the curtain on what we know and assume to be true. But despite its sharp script, impeccable casting and a powerhouse performance by star Emma Thompson, “Late Night” feels less like a knife to the heart of the good-old boys club and more like a playful punch to the arm.
Nisha Ganatra directs Kaling’s script, about once-trenchant late night host Katherine Newbury (Thompson). Her role is threatened when network CEO Caroline Morton (Amy Ryan) suggests they’ll be replacing her with gross-out bro comic Daniel Tennant (Ike Barinholtz), the opposite of Katherine’s sharply feminist, erudite British humor. A bit of a narcissist and a toxic boss, Katherine has a hit a rut with her exceedingly white, exceedingly male writers room, who aren’t willing to take on tough topics from a feminine point of view. Katherine instructs her second-in-command, Brad (Denis O’Hare), to “hire a woman,” seemingly only to make a point. So he passes over the monologue writer’s brother to hire Molly Patel (Kaling), a chemical engineer and totally green writer who leveraged some corporate connections to snag the interview.
“Late Night” isn’t afraid to grapple with the implications of the label “diversity hire,” which is levied as both an insult and a challenge to Molly. Her identity as a woman of color may have gotten her in the room, and now she has to prove she can do the job. When the women are debating the finer points of being a woman in this particular workplace, the script is aces, blazing with zingers that could be ripped from this real-life debate.
Kaling has written an absolutely stunning role for Thompson, whose Katherine is proud, brittle and insecure underneath her mask of cold bravado. Kaling and Thompson craft an utterly complicated, infuriating yet endearing character whom Thompson imbues with so much intelligence. It’s rare for a woman of a certain age to have a role this complex to tear into, and Thompson doesn’t waste the chance.
But in contrast to the Shakespearean Katherine, one can’t help but feel like Kaling forgot to write herself. Her bubbly Molly leans heavily on fan familiarity with her iconic TV characters Kelly Kapoor from “The Office” and Mindy Lahiri from “The Mindy Project.” Fans of Kaling will enjoy seeing her in this mode, and she’s exceedingly charming, along with the rest of the supporting cast. But there’s not much in the way of character development, and her Molly feels inconsistent and flighty, especially next to the gravitas of Thompson’s Katherine.
There are moments when it seems like “Late Night” could have gone further, darker and deeper into the emotional depths that especially Thompson plumbs. But at every opportunity, the filmmakers keep it light and bubbly on the surface, opting for wildly unrealistic happy endings and rapid resolutions in the place of something sharper that could have been the more interesting choice. Despite its willingness to pose the tough questions, it often feels like “Late Night” takes the easy way out.