Comedy/drama, rated R, 102 minutes, Violet Crown, 3 chiles
Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) has been hosting a late-night TV show since around the time Johnny Carson packed it in and launched the talk show wars that brought us Jay Leno, David Letterman and, for the blink of an eye, Chevy Chase. Those boys are long gone now, replaced by a new generation of hosts, but Newbury soldiers on.
The late-night talk slot has never been a welcoming ground for women. Although Joan Rivers once looked to be the heiress apparent to Carson, she crossed him by taking a gig on Fox, and he famously never spoke to her again.
No wonder Katherine is a bit prickly. And maybe a bit jaded. And maybe a bit tired of the whole thing. She’s something of an elitist, and not much in touch or sympathetic with the whole social media thing. She’d rather chat with Doris Kearns Goodwin on her show than some hashtag-trending kid. But when her new network boss (Amy Ryan) tells her this season will be her last, Katherine digs in and prepares to fight for her television life.
One of her show’s problems is its lack of diversity. The writers’ room is exclusively white and male, and someone suggests that Katherine doesn’t much like women. So she orders her producer (Denis O’Hare) to find her one (“Would a gay guy do?” he asks).
The hire turns out to be Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling, who wrote the screenplay), thus breaking the gender and color barrier in one stroke. Molly has to win over the male-centric writers’ room, and she has to win over the boss. It’s a “hire cute” twist, as she has no experience in comedy or television, but, needless to say, it’s just the shot in the arm the tired old talk show requires.
Kaling’s story is reliable and predictable — cinematic comfort food — but a lot of it is also pretty funny, and there are some twists that take it in directions that tug at a heartstring or two. The direction by TV comedy veteran Nisha Ganatra (The Mindy Project, Girls, Transparent) keeps it rolling smoothly. Kaling is appealing, O’Hare and Ryan are expert, John Lithgow supplies some emotional heft, and the writers’ room offers a few memorable characters.
But the queen of Late Night is Thompson, whose character’s impeccable timing and dry-as-gin wit makes you wonder why she hasn’t been dominating the late-night TV talk show scene for the last quarter century. Thompson could be a dark horse contender when the Oscars come around. And who knows, maybe one for an Emmy.