Late Night comedy has always been a boys’ club, no matter the generation. As the form has proliferated on cable and almost every broadcast network, the nightly hosts still tend to look the same with writers who once ran Harvard’s Lampoon or the like. It’s a deflating fact Mindy Kaling knows all too well having written on shows like The Office and Saturday Night Live before finally running her own writer’s room on The Mindy Project. And it’s a fact she used to infuse her own script about the form to amusingly pointed effect in Late Night’s best moments.
Indeed, there’s a special delight in what might be the definitive film on the subject being one that looks to shatter the unspoken entertainment industry glass ceiling. And it’s come into sharp focus at this year’s Sundance Film Festival after Amazon ponied up an astounding $13 million for the distribution rights. But while it is Kaling’s penchant for inside comedy baseball that sets up the punchline, the reason the film delivers on it—and its eight-figure price tag—is Emma Thompson.
As a wolfish Katherine Newberry, Thompson exudes a patrician dominance over the film’s proceedings. Her late night comic is a blend of the intellectual laughs (read: political) of Stephen Colbert and John Oliver, but with the smug confidence of a Bill Maher. A clear amalgamation of a variety of late night hosts, what’s remarkable about Katherine is she thrives in this male environment without necessarily changing it—or passing her unexpected success down the ladder.
Hence the hook: Challenged that she does not like women working for her, Katherine hires, almost out of spite, Molly Patel, Kaling’s earnest doppelganger who is a catch-all of well-meaning virtue. Molly’s never written comedy before, but she’s been a lifelong fan of Newberry’s 27-year running late night show and as good a fit as any of the 20-something Ivey League grads comprising the rest of Newberry’s writer’s room. She also might be the force needed to shake things up since shortly after Molly’s “diversity hire,” news comes down the network president (Amy Ryan) is planning to replace Katherine with a younger, frat boy comic.
As a narrative, Late Night is fairly standard and risks veering toward the type of cliché plotting that one imagines Katherine would roll her eyes at. Emulating The Devil Wears Prada template, Kaling casts herself as the good-hearted innocent who’s out of her depth with a silver-haired sharkstress gliding above her with snappy putdowns to accompany her deceptive smile. And in that sense, it is also the film’s weaker elements, with director Nisha Ganatra bouncing between genuinely hilarious scenes and others that are unevenly serving convention, often in an attempt to make Molly’s every-woman a tad too twee.
However, the overall effect of Late Night is still nothing short of fabulous, because what Kaling brings to the film beyond her requisitely plucky heroine is a dazzling wealth of knowledge about how the late night comedy game is played—and why it is in need of skewering. Featuring sequences like Katherine coming into the writer’s room during a moment of panic—and the first-time many of her scribes have met her face-to-face—the film will likely launch a thousand think-pieces about which host really refers to their writers by assigned seat numbers instead of their names. And the truth is that viewers will likely see shades of multiple late night comedians in Katherine’s withering gaze.
There are likewise illuminating insights, such as the headwriter treating Molly as a brown-skinned asterisk who doesn’t deserve to be there. And yet, the element that works more than any of the gossipy revelations is the dramatic weight Thompson brings to Katherine and her precarious perch in the entertainment industry.
Never a standup comic in real life, Thompson nonetheless enjoys a famed wit in her own screenwriting duties and barbed comic timing. This is also immediately visible via her interpretation of Katherine as a razor-sharp stiletto that has spent a lifetime practicing against a whetstone. She has climbed to a dizzying height, but it is a performance of an intellectual woman at comfort with the awkward stance of always fending off others trying to push her off. Additionally, the nuanced relationship between Katherine and her Parkinson’s suffering husband (John Lithgow) adds a layer of raw humanity that elevates Late Night above its feel-good disposition.
It is ultimately easy to see why Amazon is betting big on Late Night. A crowd-pleaser that turns audiences into the proverbial fly on the wall inside any writer’s room, it’s a giddy film with the kind of edge from Emma Thompson that will generate attention far beyond Sundance. As a comedy bit, it seems destined to go viral.
This review was originally published during the Sundance Film Festival on Feb. 2, 2019.