Forget national treasure: Emma Thompson could rent herself out as a national utility. In the alternately sharp-edged and generous-hearted comedy “Late Night,” she is so radiant, so utterly in command of her instruments of voice, body and facial expression that she could light up an entire urban grid with slightest suggestion of a grin.
Then again, Thompson’s Katherine Newbury, an acerbic talk-show host facing imminent replacement, is more likely to bare her fangs than turn the world on with her smile. As “Late Night” opens, she fires one of her writers – a new dad with concomitant family responsibilities – after he has the temerity to ask for a raise.
Katherine lights into him with vinegary disdain, noting that the “good provider” role was used for decades to justify paying men more, and then drawing a tone-deaf analogy between parenthood and drug addiction. The defenestration is crisp, merciless and final.
For pure sang-froid, Katherine gives Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly a breathtakingly arrogant – and elegant – run for her money. In fact, “Late Night” shares more than a little DNA with “The Devil Wears Prada”: Mindy Kaling, who also wrote the script, plays an aspiring comedy writer named Molly Patel, who through a series of lucky, maybe not entirely believable breaks lands a job on Katherine’s all-male writing staff. (“Would you consider yourself a litigious person?” Katherine’s longtime producer, played by Denis O’Hare, asks in the interview.) What ensues is a sparkling, stylish, buoyant duet of mutual mentorship, in which Molly sets out to make Katherine relevant and Katherine teaches her young protege how to toughen up.
“Late Night” possesses many of the beats one would expect from a mainstream comedy: a bit of slapstick here, some well-placed pop-culture jokes there. But it’s at its best and most timely as an attempt to mine comic gold from a moment when professional meritocracy is being re-examined as a bastion of unexamined privilege and boys-club nepotism.
The complacent bros who populate Katherine’s writers’ room – headed by a monologue writer named Tom (Reid Scott) – live in a post-Harvard Lampoon playpen of self-amused pomposity and entitlement. Now that Molly has invaded that space, they’re thrown into an existential crisis that she finds both annoying and utterly hilarious. When a well-meaning colleague notes that it’s “so important” that the producers hired a woman of color, Molly gives him her dimpled smile and sweetly replies: “I think it’s important that they hired the funniest, most qualified person, too!”
While Molly manages the self-serving assumptions of her male colleagues, she also manages Katherine’s often cruel imperiousness, whereby she refuses to learn her writers’ names and swoops around in a state of constant high dudgeon. Wearing a succession of bespoke suits, statement jewelry and on-trend Stella McCartney platform sneakers, Thompson leans into the witchiness with perfectly delivered gimlet-eyed asides and tetchy retorts, while Kaling offsets the vinegar with soft, unforced sweetness. Their chemistry is delectable.
Directed with efficient unfussiness by Nisha Ganatra, “Late Night” doesn’t scrimp on the eye candy, especially when it comes to Katherine’s menswear-based wardrobe, assembled with well-judged fabulosity by Mitchell Travers. Like “The Big Sick,” “Late Night” stages stand-up bits within the movie itself, and not every joke lands.
Thanks to some tender (but not overly sentimental) moments with her husband, played by John Lithgow, Katherine isn’t entirely unconvincing when she enters a more lovable second act. It’s at this point that “Late Night” becomes a fantastical wish-fulfillment fantasy in which authenticity, transparency and feminist truth-telling win the day. (Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so?)
Still, “Late Night” turns out to be an enormously pleasing fable about liberating oneself from the need to please. Like all comedians worth their salt, Kaling sets out to kill – but with kindness.