So far this summer at the movies, we’ve seen a wisecracking blue genie grant wishes, superheroes use time travel to save half the universe, and giant lizards fighting three-headed dragons.
But a television network letting a woman host a late-night talk show? That’s pretty unbelievable.
As an actress, writer and producer (“The Mindy Project,” “The Office”), Mindy Kaling is very aware of how women are treated and perceived in television, especially the dude-dominated world of late-night talk shows. So “Late Night,” written and produced by Kaling as well as starring her, seems like a bit of wish fulfillment about what television should and could be, as well as sharp and insightful about what it actually is. It’s a very funny movie, but the tone is more “Broadcast News” than “30 Rock,” a comedy-drama grounded in realism.
It’s also intriguing because Kaling, getting her big-screen debut as a lead, decides to cede at least half the spotlight. She’s written an equally strong role for Emma Thompson, and the two actresses, bringing very different comedic angles to the movie, show terrific chemistry.
Thompson is a master of the icy stare and withering putdown, while Kaling’s eager-to-please, bring-cupcakes-to-work exterior barely conceals her undeniable will. Her movie operates in much the same way, an engaging workplace comedy that aims some well-placed shivs at corporate sexism and ageism.
Kaling plays Molly Patel, a quality control inspector at a chemical plant who nabs her dream job as a staff writer for a late-night comedy show, “Tonight with Katherine Newbury.” Her new boss (Denis O’Hare) is unapologetic about the fact that she’s a “diversity hire,” and introduces her as “Ma-LEE” to the staff. Molly doesn’t care. She’ll take the job.
She arrives on her first day bearing enthusiasm and energy (and cupcakes), expecting the sort of writers’ room full of funny, charismatic people that we’re used to seeing on TV shows. Instead, the “Tonight” writers’ room is run on fear and boredom, with the writers (all white males) churning out uninspired jokes, each more concerned with protecting their tiny bit of turf than making the show better. Most of the writers have never even met Newbury (Thompson), a mercurial boss who is just as creatively exhausted as her writers.
“Tonight” is a ship that is taking on water, and the network’s disdainful boss (Amy Ryan) wants to oust Newbury and replace her with a younger bro-comic (Ike Barinholtz). As an outsider, Molly brings her background in quality control to analyze what’s wrong with the show, and the two women band together to try to save it.
Director Nisha Ganatra is a veteran of television herself (“Transparent,” “Better Things”) and she keeps “Late Night” skipping along with crisp, short scenes, juggling a lot of characters and subplots. Maybe too many — at times “Late Night” feels like an entire television season crammed into under two hours.
There just doesn’t seem to be room for Hugh Dancy as an oily writer who hits on Molly, Reid Scott as a rival who resists Molly’s attempts to freshen up the monologue, and Max Casella as a veteran writer who mentors her through the unglamorous process of making television.
Watching Molly and Katherine fight for the show — at first over the objections of the white guys around them, and then enlisting them in their cause — is a lot of fun, even if the changes Molly proposes are rather scattershot. In some ways, Katherine becomes more acerbic and honest, including debuting a “White Savior” segment where she uses her privilege to help minority New Yorkers hail cabs or shop in high-end boutiques.
But in other ways, she gets more touchy-feely on-air, slathering praise on the star of a teen vampire show. Maybe the movie is trying to have it both ways, or maybe “Late Night” is making a point about female performers having to be all things to all people.
In its third act, the spotlight shifts squarely onto Katherine with a dramatic subplot that seems to come out of nowhere. It takes a little fizz out of the effervescence of “Late Night,” which is otherwise a fun, female-driven movie with a lot on its mind. Diversity, the film argues, doesn’t just make the world a better place — it makes it funnier, too.