Written, produced by and starring Mindy Kaling, “Late Night” is such an interesting premise as to make one wish it had been more ambitious about pulling back the curtain on a late-night TV show. As is, the movie stands out most for Emma Thompson’s performance as an imperious talk-show host, who receives an unexpected jolt after making what she freely admits is a “diversity” hire.
Thompson’s Katherine Newbury is very much a David Letterman type – a set-in-her-ways curmudgeon who treats the new network president (Amy Ryan, under-employed) as the latest Christmas-help nuisance to pass through her orbit.
She’s thus blindsided by the prospect of losing her show, or the fact that having an all-white-male writing staff might somehow be bad optics. So the host rather impulsively hires Molly Patel (Kaling), a longtime fan – and most significantly in Katherine’s eyes, woman of color – who has been working for a chemical plant but is resourceful enough to secure an interview.
Late-night TV has always been and remains a male-dominated bastion, so exploring the gender politics of that setting offers potentially fertile terrain. Yet Kaling’s script frequently proves too on-the-nose in tackling those issues, beginning with the thinly veiled hazing to which Molly is subjected, and the dismissive way she’s treated by the writing staff, which includes characters played by Reid Scott (“Veep”) and Hugh Dancy (“Hannibal”).
Directed by Nisha Ganatra, “Late Night” does provide some laughs – Kaling and Thompson are too talented for the movie not to – along with clever cameos and fine supporting performances, including Denis O’Hare as Katherine’s longtime producer/buffer against the outside world and John Lithgow as her ailing husband.
“I saw most of the writers,” Molly says, when warned about the boys club into which she’s venturing. “I’m not overly worried about masculinity.”
There’s even a bit about Katherine numbering her writers – she’s too lazy to actually learn their names – which seems plucked directly from a widely circulated story during “Roseanne’s” heyday.
Still, “The Larry Sanders Show” set the bar pretty high for showcasing late-night TV’s big, egomaniacal personalities, and some of the backstage politics here will feel unconvincing to anyone familiar with how these shows work.
Katherine, for example, sounds surprised by the network’s preoccupation with reaching younger demographics, or why they’d be infatuated with a comic, played by Ike Barinholtz, perceived as a big draw among young men. Similarly, she initially resists working topical humor into her monologue, which, given the current climate, is almost quaint in its naivete.
There’s a good movie to be made about a woman wading into late-night TV’s headwinds – both in front of and behind the curtain. Despite solid moments, “Late Night” isn’t consistently it.
“Late Night” premieres June 7 in select US. cities and widens the next week. It’s rated R.