In the new comedy-drama Late Night, Emma Thompson plays Katherine Newbury, the acerbic British host of a long-running US talk show, whose sign-off line is “I hope I’ve earned the privilege of your time”. The script comes from Kaling, who also co-stars as the show’s new, full-of-beans “diversity hire”, and it’s equally sincere as that sign-off, if not quite as stuffy.
Directed by Transparent‘s Nisha Ganatra, the film explores what happens after Molly Patel ascends from her role as the quality control assessor at a chemical plant in Pennsylvania to become the newbie in an otherwise all-male writers’ room.
Everyone admits that the show has been declining for almost a decade, but with Katherine set to be replaced at the end of the season, Molly is determined to prove that she’s deserving of the opportunity she’s been handed.
Although it’s not a patch on 30 Rock as a writers’ room comedy, the film has some of that refreshing frankness that Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s show had about the quality of its characters’ efforts. As Amy Ryan’s acid-tongued network president tells Katherine early on, she’s losing a ratings battle against nonsense like Jimmy Fallon and Robert Downey Jr shaving a sheep together and advises her to stoop accordingly.
Coupled with the more dramatic elements of Kaling’s script, this acknowledgement of middling stakes allows the film to be more of a character study of Thompson’s character and what the show means to her. As you might expect, it feels as though the role is made for her. She plays the part as smartly and sharply as ever, but obviously relishes a return to her roots in comedy as well.
If any proof were needed that diversity makes things better, it’s that this film is immeasurably better for being about a female talk-show host than, as would be more reflective of reality, a male one. To elaborate upon that too much would get into spoiler territory, but the plot does escalate to where a festival darling of this calibre would otherwise have felt far more familiar and trite if Katherine had been a male character instead.
It doesn’t get away completely clean by the end, but its approach to a more current and controversial subject is genuinely thought-provoking. Likewise, while it’s not in service of making us laugh, there’s unexpected tenderness in Katherine’s relationship with her husband (John Lithgow, on top form), a tireless supporter in spite of all that unfolds.
These plot developments arrive at a point when the film is most clear on what it is about but if there’s a flaw in Late Night, it’s that it feels quite scattershot in focusing on Katherine’s insecurities, Molly’s professional journey, and the relationship between the two of them. A more serious third act is livened up by a hilarious subversion of a textbook rom-com trope, but it foregrounds their dynamic more clearly than the film that precedes it.
There are other (again, spoilery) ways in which Late Night sometimes feels generous to a fault, but it does earn enough goodwill in the early, funny bits to take the less clear-cut dramatic bits in its stride later on. It’s fun without feeling throwaway, ambitious without feeling lofty or high handed, and frankly, it more than earns the privilege of your time.
Late Night is out in UK cinemas now.