Emma Thompson plays Katherine Newbury, apparently the only female late night talk show host in a fictional universe concocted by writer/producer/costar Mindy Kaling. (In our actual universe, no traditional late night talk shows are currently hosted by women.) Newbury's program has been chugging along according to formula since 1991, and everything about it – its format, its sluggish, all-white, all-male writing staff, and Newbury's own frosty personality – has worn thin with the public at large.
Feeling the pressure to be more inclusive and hip, Newbury orders her beleaguered producer (Denis O'Hare) to hire the first female writer who crosses his path. Enter Molly Patel (Kaling), a chemical plant employee with absolutely no TV background, who finagles an interview through a plot contrivance and is suddenly put to work. Predictably, due to her lack of experience, the enthusiastic Molly instantly shakes up the stagnant writers room and Newbury herself.
Late Night is cute. But it could have been so much more.
One of the main problems is the character of Molly. Kaling's not a bad actor, but she's not a great one either, and she knows this well enough to write the more complicated scenes for Thompson (flawless as always), Amy Ryan as a network head, and John Lithgow as Newbury's husband. But Kaling's Molly is a "Mary Sue" – that derogatory term for a female character in female-written fan fiction who, despite being a neophyte, outsmarts all the established male characters and is an obvious stand-in for the fan fiction writer herself. But in real life, Mindy Kaling didn't jump from working in a factory to writing for TV; she graduated from Dartmouth and spent three years in TV production and off-Broadway plays before being hired as a writer-performer on The Office. I would have liked to have seen her Molly be similarly canny and ambitious. Molly's "Wow, little old me gets to write for a real live TV show!" attitude simply fails to convince at a time when half the planet considers themselves media savvy.
There are moments when Late Night sizzles, particularly in scenes between Thompson and Ryan. But Kaling, who certainly knows her way around TV production, seems to have dumbed it down for audiences, when she could have easily gotten away with a much more authentic and cynical take on showbiz. I like the points she makes about the entertainment industry's casual sexism, and Late Night's plot reflects the industry's recent goes at diversity (which indeed may have made this film possible), but in the end, she and director Ganatra deliver safe Hollywood pabulum instead of keen-eyed satire. As a result, in spite of Thompson's deliciously thorny performance, Late Night is more EDtv than Network. I enjoyed it on a basic, crowd-pleasing level, but it's mostly just wasted potential. And its jokes aren't very funny.