If we haven’t already killed the old sexist notion that women can’t be funny, the Mindy Kaling-scripted “Late Night” should be the final nail in that coffin.
Kaling also stars in this comedy, as Molly Patel, an aspiring comedian trying to make the jump from her boring old job in a chemical plant to writing comedy for her hero, late-night talk-show host Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson). She doesn’t seem to have the qualifications the head writer, Brad (Denis O’Hare), usually is seeking — but when it’s noted that the whole writing staff is “white, male and come from elite colleges,” Molly is suddenly hired for a 13-week trial run.
Those white male writers take an immediate dislike to Molly, mocking her inexperience and her earnest attempts to call out the show’s complacency. What the writers don’t know is that Katherine has been told by the new network president, Caroline Morton (Amy Ryan), that after nearly three decades as host she is being replaced by a young, frat-boy comedian (Ike Barinholtz).
What follows is Molly’s often comic, and sometimes touching, efforts to help Katherine rediscover her funny, feminist voice, and update her approach for the internet age. At the same time, Molly also tries to soften up the writing staff, including the lecherous Charlie Fain (Hugh Dancy), jaded veteran Jack Burditt (Max Casella) and the whipsmart head monologue writer, Tom Campbell (Reid Scott), who inherited the job from his father.
Director Nisha Ganatra finds the perfect pacing for Kaling’s script. She also brings an effervescence to the New York settings, from the sleek TV production offices to the stately apartment Katherine shares with her supportive husband, Walter Lovell (John Lithgow), a retired professor in the early-to-middle stages of Parkinson’s disease.
The jokes are sharp and hilarious, and often touch on issues of Hollywood sexism. In one stand-up appearance, Katherine notes that she’s the same age as Tom Cruise, adding, “He gets to fight the mummy. I AM the mummy.” Wrapping the message in comedy, like stuffing the pill in a dog treat, makes it easier to digest.
The most admirable thing Kaling does is shift “Late Night” from being Molly’s story to Katherine’s. The second half is all Thompson’s show, as Katherine deals with network pressures, a slavering media and “hot take” instant criticism. As a result, Thompson gives the best performance she’s had in years, furthering the message that all a talented woman needs to succeed in entertainment is the room to run.
Opened June 7 in select cities; opens Friday, June 14, in theaters everywhere. Rated R for language throughout and some sexual references. Running time: 102 minutes.