Every once in a while, a performance is so perfect and captivating that it allows you to forgive a movie’s flaws. Emma Thompson — excuse me — Dame Emma Thompson, delivers that performance in “Late Night.”
Emma Thompson always manages to make the most of every screen appearance, from the Harry Potter series to “Love Actually” and “Wit.” She won an Oscar for “Howard’s End” and one for writing “Sense and Sensibility.” She’s also a fabulous talk show guest.
Thompson is such a goddess, that goddess-in-training Mindy Kaling wrote “Late Night” with Thompson in mind, before she ever met her. And Kaling confessed that if Thompson declined, she didn’t have a back-up plan. However, being a goddess, of course Thompson said yes.
Thompson plays Katherine Newbury, a long-time talk-show host with a roomful of Emmys, a take-no-prisoners attitude and lagging ratings. She fires someone for wanting to spend more time with his family and shoots a mean withering glance. She also has a fierce, platinum haircut, fabulous pantsuits and a dizzying shoe wardrobe. Sounds like Meryl Streep’s fashion mag boss in “The Devil Wears Prada” you say. A bit, but Kaling gives Thompson much more to work with, more screen time and permission to steal every scene she’s in and thank goodness she’s in most of them.
In a strange twist, this late-night pioneer has an all-male writers’ room. Lucky Molly Patel (Kaling), who has zero comedy experience, walks in for a job interview right when Newbury is demanding her producer hire a female. The frat boy writers behave as you would expect to their boss’s “diversity hire,” even when she brings cupcakes to work the first day.
But let’s get back to Thompson shall we? Just minutes after accepting a humor award with a funny and biting speech, she learns from a network executive (Amy Ryan) that she is in danger of losing her job. This compels her to make a very rare visit to the writers’ room. Is it hard to believe that a strong woman, who appears to be a bit of a control freak, never has contact with her writers? Yes, but when she decides to assign each writer a number because remembering their names is too much work, you forget that pesky plot point. Vulnerable and scary at the same time. She’s not nice, but you kind of love her.
Molly is determined to keep her job and that means making sure Katherine doesn’t lose hers. She spends her spare time watching old clips of Katherine’s show, and guides her boss through the world of social media that she has been successful in evading for so long. Molly writes jokes that get cut and uses her “diversity” status to get Katherine out of a public relations jam. She also starts dating a good-looking colleague, but that relationship goes nowhere.
After her show picks up some heat, Katherine learns that being relevant has its downside. People actually begin to care about what she says and does. This affects her relationship with her husband played by John Lithgow who rivals Samuel L. Jackson as the busiest actor in Hollywood right now. He’s lovely here as the adoring, patient spouse who brings out the gentle side of this forceful character.
Other standouts in the cast include Denis O’Hare as Katherine’s harried executive producer and “The Mindy Project” alum Ike Barinholtz as a comic being groomed to take over Katherine’s show.
I have been a fan of Mindy Kaling’s for a long time. She is funny, charming and natural on screen. She is smart and doesn’t dumb down her writing. I’m assuming she incorporated some of her experience as a comedy writer on “The Office” into “Late Night.” That’s why the pat ending with its touchy-feely politically correct shout-out, feels like a letdown. But again, I forgive Kaling for everything, because she wrote the best role of Emma Thompson’s career. It’s the role she’s deserved for decades and I’m crossing my fingers for a sequel. Better yet, give Emma her own “Late Night” talk show.
Late Night – ★★★★
Amanda Glam is a former B-movie queen who appeared in such movies as “Space Shark” and “Horror at Hoosier High” and the British mini-series “What’s All This Then?” She has retired to Englewood and is thrilled to share her Hollywood know-how and movie insight with Review readers.