Late Night: Implausible talk-show-themed screwball comedy doesn't add up

By Karen Gordon

Rating: C-plus

Late Night is a light-hearted comedy with something to say and an excellent cast, that is unfortunately hobbled by a storyline that doesn’t quite add up.

At the core of the film is Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson), a transplanted Brit who has been the only woman host in the late-night comedy/talk world for 26 years. Her ratings have been in a decade-long decline, and the new network boss (Amy Ryan), tells her straight up that this is her last season. They’re going to keep the show, but replace her. 

Emma Thompson is not exactly a natural fit for the role of a talk show host in Late Night

Emma Thompson is not exactly a natural fit for the role of a talk show host in Late Night

Newbury is a tough cookie and a terror to work with.  She goes into her writer’s room, all young men, and demands they make her funny and relevant again.  When she wonders why there are no women, her producer Brad (Denis O'Hare), reminds her that she doesn’t really seem to like other women.  

But good news: The writers’ room is down a staff member, (Newbury fired him when he asked for a raise), and she demands that he be replaced by a woman. 

Enter Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling), a chemical plant efficiency expert, whose hobby is comedy, and who is a huge Katherine Newbury fan. She’s finagled her way into a job interview and her timing is screwball movie trope perfect. Molly, with no professional comedy or writing experience, gets hired. 

And so, Molly brings her can-do spirit and work ethic to the new job with an earnest enthusiasm. Despite having no media experience, Molly, in her first staff meeting, provides a pretty savvy evaulation of why Katherine’s numbers are in decline.  And for that, she gets the butt end of indifference and condescension.

Of course, Molly has her work cut out for her. She must fight for acceptance in an all-male WASPy writers’ room of professionals, who all seem primarily concerned with holding onto their jobs by not rocking the boat. 

They seem more perplexed by her than rejecting or mean spirited. She’s full of ideas, and they’re not anxious to shake things up. She tries her best to push Katherine in new directions, but even after being told that she and her career are stagnant, Katherine doesn’t seem to be open to any change.

And from there, a bunch of problems ensue. Not just for the characters, but for the audience. 

The likelihood of this happening in real life, that a cheery amateur would be hired into a key, big league network television show when it’s flailing, is in the minus column.  But no matter, we’re at the movies. And now the story’s job is to convince us that this all makes sense.

And that’s where the movie falters. Not much here adds up. Given that Katherine’s career is hanging by a thread, and the production teams’ jobs with it, what are the chances that her senior producer would hire a completely green writer with zero experience and no references? 

Despite being played by Emma Thompson, who would be appealing just eating a sandwich, we see nothing to suggest that Katherine’s either a natural comedian, or even a natural talk show host. She seems completely out of touch with the popular culture, bites and snipes at her guests, and misses the point in interviews. 

And, given the nature of late night talk genre, we’re to believe that the lone woman host in the late-night game, and a standup comedian to boot, refuses to take any personal stands on air, even when her job depends on it?  Never mind the idea that she never goes into the writers’ room on her daily show. 

Still, there are some pleasures to be had with Late Night. Director Nisha Ganatra keeps the tone light and snappy. It’s a terrific cast: Emma Thompson plays Katherine as a force of nature who is terrible to her staff, and yet, still lovable. (And does it all while wearing one of the worst wardrobes in the history of movies). John Lithgow, plays Katherine’s beloved husband suffering from Parkinson’s, and their few scenes together are touching.  Mindy Kaling, with her specific mix of sweetness, intelligence, and something slightly dangerous is, as always, appealing and fun to watch. 

The screenplay, by Mindy Kaling, aims not just to entertain, but has some worthy things to say about some of the ways that women are still made to feel like outsiders, the way people from visible minorities are either ignored or written off as “diversity hires,” and also how older women are basically sent to the employment graveyard based on their age.  And she does it all with a light touch.

But those positives don’t offset the essential problem at the core of Late Night.  Light, screwball comedies need us to suspend normality and buy into the magical idea of these strange strands coming together. And in this case, there are too many loose threads to ignore.

Late Night. Directed by Nisha Ganatra. Written by Mindy Kaling. Starring Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling and Denis O’Hare. Opens June 14.