Sundance 2019: Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling Shine in ‘Late Night’

The show-biz comedy mines the rich material of diversity in entertainment and gender inequality without becoming a polemic.

PARK CITY, UTAH: If Late Night worked on no other level — and to be clear, that’s not the case, but go with me on this — if would be worth seeing as a foghorn-loud reminder that Emma Thompson is an international treasure, and we’re not using her often enough. Her turn as Katherine Newbury, the only female talk show host on late night television, works outward from a reasonable set of assumptions about what it would take to survive in that job for 28 years: she encourages an environment of total fear in her subordinates.

Early reviews from the Sundance Film Festival, where the film premiered over the weekend, have compared Thompson’s Katherine to Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada, and it’s an easy line to draw (right down to the fab costumes and shock-white hair). But Thompson has the advantage of her clipped, British accent and diction, which transforms even her roughest dialogue into polished gems. It’s a hell of a performance.

“I wrote it for Emma Thompson, and I really think only she could’ve played this part,” screenwriter and co-star Mindy Kaling confessed in a post-screening Q&A, “which is probably one of the stupider things you can do as a screenwriter, is tether your movie to the only person who can play it and hope that they can. A person I did not know! So I was just this creep in my home writing a fan fiction movie for me and Emma Thompson, a woman I don’t know, and hoping she would one day read it and do it. So this is actually, I’m sure there are tons of aspiring writers out there — you can do that. You can be that creepy person, and sometimes it works out.”

Kaling stars as Molly, brought into Katherine’s all-white, all-male writer’s room as a barely veiled “diversity hire.” As Molly, Kaling harnesses her considerable charisma and gift for charming naiveté; as Katherine tells her, “your earnestness can be very hard to be around.” Their duet scenes are the heart of the picture, and while each makes the expected transition — Molly becomes a savvy writer who can hold her own in the room (even against her boss), while Katherine figures out how to soften and be more herself on air — those transitions are done with panache. The script’s other pairings are equally inspired; it’s fun to watch Thompson and Amy Ryan (as the head of the network, keen to show Katherine the door) go at each other, and the comfy, lived-in scenes concerning her marriage to John Lithgow are lovely. (It is telling, and perfect, that their big scene together is played on a stage.)

The punchlines fly in Kaling’s script, sometimes too cleanly and quickly — it’s sharp and funny, yes, and also very clearly the work of a TV-trained writer. But that’s not always a bad thing: Late Night is wonderfully sharp when targeting (not infrequently) the cringe-inducing play-date nature of the most successful late night shows at the moment (summarized, most succinctly, as “Kevin Hart on a Slip ‘N Slide”), and those who’ve read Jason Zinoman’s excellent David Letterman biography will recognize the logistics of working for of a talk-show host who’s grown so disengaged and isolated, they haven’t ever met some of their writers.

And the movie gets, to a great extent, how modern media works — the kinds of things that go viral, how they’re reported, then reframed and think-pieced (right down to the Vulture hed that calls Katherine “Your Least Favorite Aunt”). And, Kaling being Kaling, the tiny pop culture touches are bang-on. (My favorite: a teen vampire series called Van Helsing Prep.) Nisha Ganatra’s direction isn’t terribly inspired — it’s a lot of standard shot-shot-reaction stuff — but she’s good with her actors, and paces the picture well, even if the needle-drops and score keep smothering her scenes.

Late Night is smarter than that. It may be a longer and more sincere 30 Rock, but there’s some pretty heady stuff about “diversity hires” and workplace inequality in what has always been and remains a very straight-white-male-centric world; Kaling knows how to address these issues without turning the movie into a polemic, how to touch on this stuff but still get the laugh. And clearly, it works.

“This is a movie about being a real outsider and a fan of things,” she explained in her Q&A, “and I have seen so many great movies about young fans of comedy who are young white men, you see that story a lot. And when you don’t see yourself represented in a film, you just start to bond with whoever is up there.” So now, maybe, she can be that entry point: “The world is changing so quickly, and I really am an optimist at heart, and I really have faith.”

Late Night screens this week at the Sundance Film Festival. It was purchased by Amazon Studios for, presumably, release later this year. (All photos: Jason Bailey / Flavorwire)