Late Night, written by The Office and The Mindy Project writer-star Mindy Kaling and starring Kaling alongside Her Majesty Emma Thompson, is a buttery, oven-ready PG-13 comedy of a sort that has been displaced in recent years by raunchier R-rated fare. Bursting with the same effervescence that Kaling herself projects, Late Night is worthy of what might be deemed an old-fashioned descriptor: a "feel-good" film. It opens Friday in wide release.
Katherine Newbury (Thompson) is a veteran late-night talk show host — the first woman to host her own late-night show — whose ratings are tumbling and whose career may be toast when a steely new executive (Amy Ryan) tells her she'll be canceled after her current season. In an effort to spice up the show, and to respond to criticisms of a writers' room composed exclusively of privileged white males, Newbury's assistant (a pitch-perfect Dennis O'Hare) hires the uncredentialed Molly Patel (Kaling) on the strength of an off-the-cuff remark in an otherwise calamitous interview.
The plot is thereafter as formulaic as it gets: A hardened veteran who is initially annoyed and even repulsed (or frightened?) by a younger "diversity hire" grows to respect and admire her as she ably, honestly diagnoses the show's defects — Newbury is both too old and too white — and invites this pioneering woman in entertainment to be more vulnerable both on screen and off.
But you can't argue with a solid formula, especially when it's so pleasantly executed. There is a romantic B-storyline as well, and the general vibe (young creative people in New York City!) is that of a rom-com, but it's not squarely in that territory. The ensemble scenes in the writers' room, with guys like Reid Scott (Veep), Max Casella (Sgt. Bilko) and Paul Walter Hauser (I, Tonya), amplifying their bro-tastic tone-deafness, are punchy and fun.
But they take their cues from the radiant, expressive Thompson. From her mortified confusion at the bubbly Molly to her casual disemboweling of her writers — "You're fired, obviously" — Thompson is every bit the intellectual host who can't break through to younger audiences and can't see why she should have to. While it's difficult to see Newbury as a former standup comic — the late-night opening monologues and the stand-up bits are where the scripted humor runs briefly aground — Thompson nevertheless presides over the cast and the entire project with a glittering prestige and authority.