The new comedy “Late Night,” about the comeback of a veteran female talk-show host, resonates beyond its conventional dramatic arc and its unexceptional style through the force of its main idea. The movie, directed by Nisha Ganatra and written by Mindy Kaling—who stars alongside Emma Thompson—virtually turns the camera around on itself and considers its own place in the mediascape. The story involves the politics of media while making the politicization of media its subject; it pokes at the thick curtain of mass media’s formatted impersonality and peeks through to the reckless moments of spontaneity that turn images into events. While “Late Night” approaches these themes mildly and cautiously, it nonetheless discerns and dramatizes some of the current-day entertainment industry’s most urgent themes and conflicts.
Thompson plays Katherine Newbury, who has been hosting a late-night talk show for twenty-eight years. She’s had great success (a batch of Emmy awards, even knighthood) but her show’s ratings have been flagging of late. Katherine takes the talk part of the job very seriously—and gets in trouble with the president of the station, Caroline Morton (Amy Ryan), for booking the biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin on a night when Jimmy Fallon has Robert Downey, Jr. But she takes the comedy part of her show unseriously, keeping a hacky writers’ room composed entirely of white men—including one who has been there forever and another who is the son of one of her former writers.
With her public image stuck in a rut, Katherine is exhorted to hire a female writer, but she doesn’t know any and certainly doesn’t care about any, either. When a Pennsylvania chemical-plant employee and amateur standup comedian named Molly Patel (Kaling) shows up for an interview with Katherine’s longtime producer (Denis O’Hare), she’s hired on the spot. The men in the writers’ room think that she’s a new secretary. Katherine—who hasn’t set foot in the writers’ room for years, and calls the writers not by their names but by numbers based on their places at the table—is forced to take notice of her. Yet the newcomer, a fan of Katherine’s, takes the scientific approach and offers, off the bat, three suggestions: she should do person-in-the-street video segments that can go viral; she should do social media; and she should treat her monologues as a way to express her strong personal views. It’s only when, resisting change, Katherine is on the verge of being fired from the show and replaced by a smarmy, misogynistic, frat-boy-style comedian (Ike Barinholtz) that she takes Molly’s advice and saves her show and her career.
After Molly is hired, the ostensibly apolitical (albeit earnest) entertainment that Katherine has long been providing reveals its underlying politics in the writers’ room. One of the veteran writers complains that the working environment is hostile to white males, and another wishes that he were a woman of color so that he could get hired for jobs without any qualifications. Another guy declares, obliviously, that comedy is the ultimate meritocracy; he says as much at a fancy party that Katherine hosts at her home, at the insistence of her publicist, so that she can come off as a “people person.” Her image needs a boost because she has suffered a colossal on-air dressing-down by a young YouTube sensation named Mimi Mismatch (Annaleigh Ashford), whom she was treating condescendingly.
It is no surprise that Molly, the analytical and enthusiastic outsider, turns out to be right: it takes an audacious social-media campaign, along with a bold on-air bit of improvised comedic jiu-jitsu, for Katherine to save her job. She undertakes a host-in-the-street segment that starts out as fluff but quickly turns into investigative political advocacy. Initially reticent about delivering a joke about anti-abortion Republicans that Molly wrote, Katherine begins using her monologues for frank and uninhibited social commentary and, in the process—exactly as Molly had anticipated—lets the full flair of her personality shine through. (Katherine also has a sharp line about her prospects in Hollywood, as a fifty-six-year-old woman—she says she might be able to play Sean Penn’s grandmother in a movie that features Emma Stone as his high-school sweetheart.)
In short, Molly coaxes Katherine to be something much closer to her private self on air than she ever has been before. “Late Night” itself remains somewhat coy about its characters, however. What happens, for instance, when, after a falling-out, Katherine chases Molly down to her Coney Island apartment, rehires her, and brings her back to the studio in her limo? There’s an implicit moment of personal connection that reaches beyond the professional confines of the drama—but the movie elides it. There’s also some dramatic sleight-of-hand regarding a major subplot, concerning the revelation that Katherine is having an affair with one of her young male writers, Charlie (Hugh Dancy). The resulting trouble, peculiarly, pivots on her unfaithfulness to her husband (John Lithgow) rather than on her potential abuse of power in a relationship with an employee. This focus is set up by the revelation that Charlie is sexually pushy, and somewhat creepy toward Molly, and that he took the lead in initiating the affair with Katherine. This plotline suggests that the film is less interested in politics than in the strategic deployment of politics in the media—and, in this regard, the movie itself mirrors its protagonists’ actions. (The plotline is also flimsy in a way that’s endemic to the current cinema: it’s not developed dramatically but is, rather, slipped in as pieces of evidence for critics and viewers to check off and piece together.)
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“Late Night” dramatizes (however schematically) the positive effect, on Katherine and on the mediascape at large, of ethnic and gender diversity. It also dramatizes another, less obvious sort of diversity: the bracing impact of newcomers, the breaking of barriers between professionals and amateurs, insiders and outsiders. (This boundary-breaking is aided by social media; it’s easy to imagine that, in a remake of “The King of Comedy,” Rupert Pupkin would have a YouTube following.) The sense of powerful talent emerging from the distant margins is caught in Kaling’s remarkable performance. She plays Molly not as if she were an actor playing a writer but as if she were a writer functioning as an actor playing a writer. Kaling talks as if she were offscreen, writing her lines in the act of speaking them and delivering them with conversational and colloquial emphases and inflections. Her performance cuts through the movie’s conventional Hollywood textures no less than Molly’s insights break through the tightly formatted confines of late-night television. The movie itself doesn’t go very far in its exploration of the ideas that it evokes, but Kaling’s performance suggests a much wider and more daring range of characters and movies to come.