It’s been a while since Emma Thompson landed a lead role she could sink her comic incisors into, so you’re grateful for every well-played frozen stare and whiplash line reading she serves up in “Late Night.” The movie, written by Mindy Kaling and directed by Nisha Ganatra (“Chutney Popcorn”), is a light and spiky office comedy about a New York talk-show host, the brittle and British Katherine Newbury, who’s been doing her late-night show for 28 years and has gotten herself into a rut so deep and wide that the rut is all she can see.
Thompson, for all the crack timing and attitude she applies to a line like “My Spanx have actually cut off the blood supply to my head,” plays Katherine as an addled misanthrope who’s been operating on auto-pilot. Her writing staff consists entirely of men, because she doesn’t care for women writers, which is really her way of acting out the dislike she feels for herself. She’s in dire need of a shake-up, and she gets it when Molly Patel (played by Kaling), an Indian-American efficiency expert from a chemical plant in Pennsylvania, becomes the show’s fluky attempt at a diversity hire. She worships Katherine, and she’s going to update her show even if she has to get fired to do it.
With her declarative snap and ability to go for the jugular, Thompson truly seems like a born talk-show host. Even when she’s just riffing, she grounds “Late Night” in something real. Yet the movie, while it races forward with snappish energy, is telegraphed and a bit scattershot. It keeps throwing observations at you — about age and obsolescence, the dumbing down of the culture, the boys’ club of comedy writing, the perils of social media. Yet the themes don’t always mesh into a coherent vision of the talk-show landscape. Twenty years ago, “The Larry Sanders Show” was a brilliant deconstruction of the late-night universe, and now, with so many hosts competing for our attention, that universe has only gotten headier. But in “Late Night,” the rigamarole of actually running a talk show stays off to the side. The film wants to be a puckish media satire and an earnest workplace dramedy about “growing,” and the fusion doesn’t always gel.
Early on, the head of the network, played with smug ruthlessness by Amy Ryan, comes backstage to inform Katherine that this will be her last season as host; due to years of ratings slippage, she’s going to be replaced. (The stand-up comedian who’s set to take over, played by Ike Barinholtz, is your worst Dane Cook nightmare.) All of this jump-starts Katherine into taking action (like, for instance, actually coming to a writers’ meeting), but what’s the problem with her show? She’s accused of being too snooty, and the example given is that she had the fabled historian Doris Kearns Goodwin on as a guest. (By contrast, Jimmy Fallon had Robert Downey Jr. on and washed a big dog with him.)
Okay, so she’s too much of an old-school snob. But then Molly writes a new sort of monologue joke for her, about Planned Parenthood and menopause, and when Katherine refuses at the last minute to deliver it, she’s accused of backing off from who she really is. Then she’s forced to have a YouTube star on as guest, a crass self-promoter who makes jokes about the way her dog’s butt smells. But when Katherine reveals, on camera, what she really thinks of her, she’s portrayed as stodgy and out-of-it (Vulture calls her “your least favorite aunt”). But wasn’t she just calling it like she saw it? Then she does a series of Fallon-style sketches about being a “white savior,” but since she’s the only woman on late night, why does the film suddenly view her as a bulwark of the patriarchy?
Maybe these sorts of inconsistencies aren’t worth griping about. The film certainly demonstrates that the writers’ room needs to be something other than a bunch of nerdy glib middle-class white dudes. Molly sets the change in motion, and Kaling makes the character an appealing contradiction: a perilously earnest joke writer, less a born cut-up than an efficiency expert of the one-liner. But I wish the movie had stayed focused on comedy. There’s a romantic subplot, involving Molly and one of the show’s writers, that’s so wispy it threatens to blow away.
One of the key aspects of Katherine that marks her as a dinosaur is that she doesn’t get social media, but she’s dragged into the new era anyway — by a story that spills her private emails. Which provokes a catharsis between her and her highbrow husband (John Lithgow), an emeritus NYU prof suffering from Parkinson’s disease. It all spurs her to become the 2.0 version of herself. Emma Thompson makes it a game transformation, but what’s the vision of late night in “Late Night”? The movie doesn’t quite have one.