You get the sense that Mindy Kaling was taking notes during her years working in sitcom writers' rooms. Late Night, the first feature she has scripted, assumes the form of a fairly predictable backstage comedy about an unlikely mentor-protege relationship, but it makes up for its lack of innovation with plenty of insider perspective: Like a less acerbic cousin of James L. Brooks' classic Broadcast News, it's a film that understands how TV is made, and how showbiz has no problem displacing women, assuming they're even allowed through the door in the first place.
It's also helped along by a terrific central performance by Emma Thompson, whose Katherine Newbury is, as the film begins, the only woman hosting a talk show on a major television network. She's all sharp edges and withering disdain, and in all the years she's been doing comedy, she seems to have forgotten why she started in the first place. With her ivory-white coiffe and sensible suits, she's only a couple degrees removed from Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada.
Katherine's weekly ratings are tumbling, and it's no wonder: She tends toward intellectual guests like Doris Kearns Goodwin and Dianne Feinstein, while her producer (Denis O'Hare) pushes vapid YouTube celebrities and teen soap stars onto her couch. With the head of the network (Amy Ryan) threatening to replace her with a hacky Dane Cook-style comedian (Ike Barinholtz), Katherine grits her teeth and decides to — gasp! — actually collaborate with her writers, whom she has assigned numbers in lieu of learning their names.
This is how she has the sudden (albeit very delayed) realization that the people writing her show have always been white dudes. Enter Molly (Kaling), who talks her way into an interview despite having no real experience in comedy — she works in quality control at a chemical plant — but hey, she's a young woman of color, and that's good enough for Katherine.
From here, the plot is about as predetermined as a joke scrawled out on a cue card. Molly will find her voice in a room that doesn't initially embrace it, and her unorthodox methods will serve to challenge the old guard. Katherine, who doesn't even want to step away from her desk or inject her own personality and political beliefs into her material, will have to confront her fear of appearing genuine in front of her audience, and therefore revealing her true self. And there will be a fight, because there has to also be a last-minute reconciliation.
But I never minded the paint-by-numbers structure of Late Night because Kaling's script is so amiable, and because director Nisha Ganatra has assembled an excellent cast of comic ringers. The writers themselves are all types who develop into actual characters — the smarmy ladies' man (Hugh Dancy), the Harvard grad (Reid Scott) who inherited the job from his father ("This is such a hostile environment to be an educated white male," he laments), and the lifer (Max Casella) who dispenses cockeyed wisdom. And John Lithgow is unsurprisingly effective as Katherine's husband, who does his best to cheer her on even as he succumbs to Parkinson's disease.
One of the inherent challenges in making a movie about the craft of comedy is that it's really difficult to make the material funny, and Late Night is no exception. The footage we see of Katherine's opening monologues, for instance, relies heavily on shots of extras howling like hyenas at jokes that are B-minus at best, and a scene in which Katherine returns to her stand-up roots and rediscovers her purpose would have been a lot more meaningful had it been funnier. In fact, the dialogue Kaling has written for her characters is much brighter and wittier than any of the jokes she makes them recite.
Kaling is still new to film, but having worked for years on both The Office and her own sitcom The Mindy Project, she gets a lot of the minor details of the writing world right — the deadlines, the all-night cram sessions, the last-minute joke replacements. She's also empathetic to the fact that Molly's employment is predicated on an unfortunate Catch-22: She doesn't want to be written off as merely a diversity hire, but she also knows that's exactly what she is, and Katherine doesn't mince words about the fact that she's there merely for optics. It's the kind of complicated issue that studio-driven movies rarely touch.
As a behind-the-scenes comedy, Late Night never comes close to reaching the dizzying heights of, say, 30 Rock or The Larry Sanders Show. You'll know where it's headed and in which directions the character arcs will bend. But damn it, if the movie isn't carried along by the intelligence and charm of its two stars, and they have plenty to spare. ♦