Comedy, the genre that’s easiest to underestimate, can be a tunnel into practically everything. We may make distinctions between dumb comedies and smart comedies, but the best ones prick the skin at least a little, injecting an energy rush that dilutes any self-pity or self-congratulation we may be carrying around in us. Had a crap day? Buster Keaton is having a worse one. Afraid to fall in love? Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda are having a hard time with that one, too. Feeling stupid? Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels are definitely dumber. Good comedies are the stuff of everyday life, and for most of us, the bulk of everyday life is work.
In Late Night—directed by Nisha Ganatra and written by Mindy Kaling, who also co-stars in the film—Emma Thompson plays Katherine, the brittle, uncompromising host of a long-running late-night show that’s running aground, at least in part because Katherine herself is out of touch: Her jokes are too frosty and erudite, and her taste in guests runs to serious types like historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, while her competitors are cleaning up by putting Kevin Hart on a Slip’n’Slide. Perhaps it doesn’t help that her writers are all white dudes; she instructs her right-hand man (a gloriously persnickety Denis O’Hare) to hire a woman, fast. The beneficiary—or the victim, depending on how you see it—is Kaling’s effervescently optimistic Molly Patel, a lifelong stand-up comedy devotee who has miraculously made her way from toiling at a chemical plant in Pennsylvania to gaining a coveted spot in the writers’ room. The men who have long had their butts planted there resent her; when she shows up on her first day, beaming and armed with cupcakes for everyone, their derision hangs in the air like invisible cigar smoke.
But if Molly has a tough enough time breaking into the bro circle, she has even less luck with Katherine, who doesn’t like any of her writers to begin with. Suddenly desperate to revitalize her show, she crashes one of their meetings. Not knowing any of their names, even though many of them have been in her employ for years, she assigns them numbers. When Molly eagerly offers some accurate criticism of what’s wrong with the show, Katherine accepts her candor with cool approval—then berates her for not having an immediate solution for the problems she’s pinpointed. Before long, Molly is crying at work—under her desk, no less—a terrifically unfunny thing in either a movie or in real life. Maybe most women have done it at one time or another, but the more hardened among us make sure no one sees it.
As Molly weeps under her desk, she lashes out at her officemate and fellow writer, Burditt (Max Casella, delightfully world-weary): She deserves this job and will not be marginalized by the white patriarchy or anyone else. He stops her short: The point isn’t whether she’s deserving or not, it’s that she’s there to produce material. “You’re a writer,” he tells her, “so write.”
There’s nothing fancy about that advice, but its hard-nosed straightforwardness is part of what makes Late Night work so well. Even if getting the job is hard enough—as it is for a woman of color like Molly, or, for that matter, like Kaling—once you’ve landed it, the only way forward is to prove your worth. Kaling has written a film that argues for diversity in the workplace and against giving in to relentless self-victimization, which is not only uninteresting but also self-defeating. That’s not to say abuses don’t happen. Workplaces can be oppressive: Molly is, at first, undermined both by her boss and her co-workers. One of the latter, Hugh Dancy’s Charlie, tries, almost successfully, to wheedle her into bed; another, Reid Scott’s Tom, the show’s head monologue writer, feels threatened and tries to block her best ideas.
But if the guys Molly works with are jerks, they’re not villains. There’s a difference, and Late Night gets that. What’s more, Kaling hasn’t written this film to be about Kaling, or even, really about Molly: It’s mostly about Katherine, and that’s what makes Late Night feel so generous-spirited. (Kaling has said that she wrote the role specifically for Thompson, without having a clue as to whether the actress would be interested in it or not.) Who should feel sorry for a highly successful past-middle-aged white woman like Katherine? No one—not even Katherine. But Late Night is hip to the reality that women working in comedy have always been swimming upstream: Katherine fought to get where she is, but somewhere along the way, she lost the plot. No wonder she feels lost, and if her prickly self-confidence has always served her well, its magic has stopped working
This is a great role for Thompson, and she shoulders it like a caryatid on killer stems. If Katherine is a hellion at work, she’s not much of a bargain at home, either. Her husband, played by the always superb John Lithgow, is a former NYU professor sidelined by Parkinson’s; he tries to stand by her, but sometimes she’s moving too fast for him. Even after Katherine undergoes the transformation the plot requires of her, she’s still not wholly likable. But her reserve—and it’s more than just the fact that she’s British—is part of what’s compelling about her. She’s cool, like fire—you want to get closer, even if you’re scared to. And she’s dazzling with a punchline. Molly, once she figures out how to key into Katherine’s intermingled strengths and vulnerabilities, devises a woman-on-the-street routine for her—she stops people of color on the street and quizzes them, with exaggerated earnestness, about the indignities they face. When one guy notes that he still has difficulty getting a cab, she hails one for him, even though he protests that he doesn’t need it. “That’s what white saviors do!” she says with exquisite radiance, addressing the air around her, spreading her magnanimous overkill like dandelion seed.
Katherine, whether cutting down her employees or her guests—she humiliates a ditzy YouTube sensation known as Mimi Mismatch, who then turns on her in righteous and not wholly unjustified fury—can be terrible to behold and wonderful to watch. If she’s a cartoon of the worst boss you’ve ever had, she’s also a crystallization of the most demanding, the one who summons the best from you, like Leopold Stokowski coaxing mad perfection from all those flutes and strings and woodwinds. Nisha Ganatra has directed a lot of TV and a few previous movie features, and she keeps Late Night moving at a clip; it has the wiggy energy of a workplace that might sometimes drive you crazy, but is never boring. This is a great workplace comedy about the ways in which people who seem to be holding you back can also, sometimes, be the ones pushing you forward. Crawling under your desk gets you nowhere. It also means you miss all the fun.