Starring Mindy Kaling. Rated PG
Although this crowd-pleasing dramedy gets a bit squishy around the edges, it benefits from uncanny pulse-taking of this moment in social history. And it boasts both a smart script and supersnappy performance from Mindy Kaling.
It also boasts a role Emma Thompson was born for: Katherine Newbury, an acerbic Brit alone in the late-night boys’ club of TV chat shows. Putting aside the notion that any woman with her own network program for almost three decades might have been forced to deal with these issues in that time, you have to accept that the cool-headed host has somehow failed to connect outspoken feminism to her own workplace. When we meet Newbury, in present-day Manhattan, her writers are all white men, and she’s been in a long ratings slump that has prompted the new network head (Amy Ryan) to shake things up.
Instructing her long-suffering producer (Dennis O’Hare) to hire a woman—any woman—to up her image, she ends up with a twofer in Indo-American Molly Patel, a chemical-plant worker with dreams of standup comedy. The role reflects Kaling’s experience as the only female writer on The Office (leading, of course, to her on-camera career), although it’s doubtful that she got as frosty a reception as that offered by a well-connected head writer (Veep’s Reid Scott) and other assorted sad-sack scribblers.
Molly’s initial contributions relate more to her experience as a systems analyst than as a joke machine, as she turns in criticism the boss hates but badly needs to hear. Katherine’s own best critic is her husband, an academic played by John Lithgow. But he’s in steep health decline, and she has forgone friends and family to concentrate on her niche career.
This is Vancouver director Nisha Ganatra’s second feature in two decades, after 1999’s Chutney Popcorn. She has done tons of episodic TV since then, including The Mindy Project, and Ganatra finds a remarkable variety of tones and moods here, even if Late Night is somewhat lacking in the laugh-out-loud material it ostensibly covers. The biggest misstep comes at the end, with the film compulsively providing redemptive catharsis for almost every character. Superior writing and performances are reward enough, and leaving this timely tale upbeat but still unresolved would have been truer to our real-life program, already in progress.