By Eleanor Ringel Cater
“Late Night” is both too little and too late.
I say that regretfully. The idea of a workplace comedy attuned to #MeToo and #TimesUp would certainly be welcome, especially in the summer when Hollywood all but posts signs saying “No Girls Allowed.”
But writer/star Mindy Kaling simply hasn’t come up with the goods.
Best known for her work on “The Office” and “The Mindy Project,” she’s crafted a sweet, mildly witty tale of a late-night talk show host forced to hire her first female writer.
Katherine Newberry (Emma Thompson) has been at the top for long time, but the ratings are starting to slip and her ironic persona is getting a little frayed around the edges. It doesn’t help that, as one of her team points out, she doesn’t think anything funny has happened since 1995 (and don’t even mention the Internet.)
When one longtime staffer has the audacity to have a child – Katherine treats the news like he’s lapsed into drug addiction – he’s fired and replaced (in something of a stretch) by Molly (Kaling), a former chemical plant employee who not only has always dreamed of writing comedy, but absolutely worships Newberry.
It’s not, as you probably expect, initially a good fit. Katherine is hardly on Molly’s side and the guys are generally appalled. Snaps one, “I wish I were a woman of color so I could get any job I want without any qualifications.”
The movie is at its best when it gets specific like that; the dig is both snide and privileged. And the line would kill in a stand-up routine. But “Late Night” is trying to be a movie and much of it is scattershot and expected.
If it had been released in, say, the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, “Late Night” might’ve had more heft. But while its social insights are certainly appreciated and occasionally sharp, mostly this is old news. “Broadcast News,” released in 1987, had more bite.
Still, “Late Night” is hardly a chore to sit through. Kaling comes from the trenches and knows whereof she speaks. How do you appeal to an audience who would rather watch Kevin Hart on a Slip ‘n’ Slide than listen to Doris Kearns Goodwin?
And then there’s Kaling’s ace in the hole: her star. Thompson is brilliant as a shrewd and often shrewish cross between a certain devil in Prada and Murphy Brown on a bad day. In fact, you may leave the film thinking, gee, for a movie, this is a pretty darn good sitcom.
“I hope I earned the privilege of your time,” says Katherine in her signature sign-off. Well, put Thompson into a weekly half-hour show and she probably will.