By Jeffrey Sanzel
Fans of Mindy Kaling, best known for “The Office” and “The Mindy Project,” have been flocking to theaters to see her debut as feature writer for “Late Night,” a by-the-numbers comedy that takes on the issue of diversity in the workplace and makes its statement with a connect-the-dots expectation. Directed by Nisha Ganatra, there are no surprises but it still makes for an enjoyable hour and 45 minutes.
Emma Thompson plays legendary late-night talk show host Katherine Newbury whose ratings have been slipping. She has surrounded herself with an all-male, all-white staff and is described as a “woman who hates women.” In response to this, she gives her long-suffering producer Brad (a wonderful Denis O’Hare) the task of hiring a woman. Through slightly unbelievable machinations, he brings on chemical plant worker Molly (Mindy Kaling) to the writing staff.
Instead of a true examination of hiring practices, what ensues is humorous but contrived as Molly is first ostracized and then embraced by the team. There are occasional edgy moments – including Molly writing a topical and controversial monologue joke – but these risks are few. For the most part, it adheres to traditional comedy tropes, including an ill-fated and unnecessary romantic entanglement that feels incomplete. (There is a sense throughout the film that a good deal ended up on the cutting room floor as certain ideas and conflicts are introduced but not seen to conclusion.)
The first turning point is when Katherine discovers she is going to be replaced by a mainstream and extremely coarse comedian Daniel Tennant (Ike Barinholtz, a subtle performance that avoids caricature). With this impetus, she goes to war with the head of the network Caroline Morton (Amy Ryan, saddled with a two-dimensional character). With Molly’s wide-eyed, aw-shucks guidance, Katherine begins to reinvent herself.
Emma Thompson, one of the greatest and most versatile actors, creates a delightful monster of a boss. She never talks to her writers and doesn’t even bother to learn their names. When forced into a room with them, she gives them numbers. This is not done with cruelty but rather by someone who cannot be bothered with the people beneath her. Of course, in a comedy of this nature, she gradually learns to appreciate them.
Thompson’s depth is best shown when interacting with her ill husband Walter (a touching John Lithgow) and in an impromptu performance at a hole-in-the-wall benefit downtown. In the latter scene, the audience can see her pondering the mortality of her career.
Kaling is Thompson’s co-star and conscience. She is also “Late Night’s” writer and producer, which perhaps explains some of the weaknesses. As an actor, Kaling is a personality performer. There is no genuine complexity in her work but she is comfortable in her persona. She is watchable but, unlike with Thompson, as a presence, she is not transformative.
The film is bolstered by a cast of strong actors in convincing performances, including Hugh Dancy, Reid Scott, Max Casella, Paul Hauser and John Early. It is interesting to note that with the exception of Thompson and Kaling, there are no other fully developed female characters.
The second act crisis is clumsily manipulated but, once again, the actors are able to make it work. “Late Night” builds to an expected resolution but, given the nature of the film, it is the one that the audience hopes for and expects.
Rated R, “Late Night” is now playing at local theaters.