Late Night review: Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling are a thoroughly engaging double act

Dir: Nisha Ganatra. Starring: Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, Amy Ryan, John Lithgow, Hugh Dancy. Cert 15, 101 mins

Late Night is a caustic satirical comedy that turns into an unlikely tearjerker. It’s by turns snide and uplifting, and often very funny too. Its writer/producer/star Mindy Kaling makes vicious observations about the inanity, narcissism and corruption of the mainstream US media at the same time as she celebrates the professionalism of many of those who work within it.

The film has a glorious performance from Emma Thompson and a very sly one from Kaling. Thompson is at her most imperious as Katherine Newbury, a legendary entertainer, the only female in a male-dominated field, but one whose career is beginning to slide.

Katherine is a paradoxical figure. In spite of her job cracking jokes and interviewing other celebrities, she is “not a people person”. An English woman in America, she is bad at small talk and treats her staff and her employers with equal contempt. In the social media age, she is beginning to seem a dinosaur. Thompson captures perfectly her character’s odd blend of arrogance and insecurity. She also delivers the many snarky one liners with relish and perfect comic timing.

Kaling plays Molly Patel, a quality controller at a chemical laboratory somewhere in deepest Pennsylvania. She reveres Katherine and would love to work for her. Thanks to a mix of outrageous good fortune, her own cunning and the TV station’s need for more diversity hires, the Asian-American lands a job. “She is not a production assistant, dipshits, she is the new writer!” the producer tells the other writers who immediately assume Molly has been hired as their dogsbody.

Molly’s new colleagues are a motley crew of white, male misfits from elite colleges. They’re both conceited and demoralised. In the topsy-turvy world Kaling portrays, these writers think they are being discriminated against precisely because they are so privileged. “I wish I was a woman of colour so I could just get any job I wanted,” one man grumbles.

Katherine doesn’t know any of the writers’ names and keeps them at arm’s length. If they complain they have to work too hard, she’ll given the quick blast of her sarcastic humour and sack them on the spot. Her show is on the slide. The ratings-obsessed network boss (Amy Ryan) is looking for an excuse to sack Katherine. This is the snake’s den of a workplace in which Molly finds herself.

Late Night has echoes both of Network (1976) and of All About Eve (1950). In the former, Peter Finch played broadcaster Howard Beale, who rants live on air that he is “mad as hell” and isn’t going to “take it anymore”. His anger and sincerity strike an immediate chord with viewers. Here, similarly, when Katherine’s comedy becomes more personal and political, when she touches on menopause and abortion, she at last engages the younger viewers who previously regarded her as the TV equivalent to their least favourite aunt.

Like the young actress (Anne Baxter) usurping the position of the established star Bette Davis in All About Eve, Molly is nowhere near as demure or hapless as she first appears. She is outspoken in meetings and quietly very ambitious.

Kaling, who had her first big break as a “diversity hire” on the US version of The Office, clearly knows the world of American TV comedy inside out. There is a strict hierarchy in the writers’ room. If you’re working on the opening monologue, you are far higher up the food chain than if you are supplying one-off gags, most of which probably won’t be used or acknowledged anyway. The hours are daunting and the writers rarely get near the recording stage. They’re kept in the background, slaving away at their jokes. The film shows how earnest and stressed they become in trying to be funny.

Director Nisha Ganatra keeps the pace very brisk. As in old Hollywood screwball comedies, the actors deliver their lines at speed. As soon as one night’s show is over, they’re already thinking about the next one. There are dips, though: moments in which characters take themselves very seriously as they contemplate problems in their private lives. In the office or on air, Thompson’s Katherine is formidable, but at home, with her ailing husband (John Lithgow), she can become very self-pitying.

The characterisation and plotting aren’t always consistent. Katherine is defined by her commitment to excellence. She devotes her life to her work. Her colleagues tolerate her high-handed behaviour because they respect her. “We are not here because you are nice. We are here because you are good,” they tell her. Given this, it’s hard to understand how she has allowed her show to drift off into such low key mediocrity.

Molly, of course, diagnoses Katherine’s problem immediately. She is a “little old and a little white”. The pleasure in the latter part of the film comes from the ingenious way the comedian turns her perceived disadvantages to her own benefit. Thompson and Kaling make a thoroughly engaging double act as the film deals with everything from ageism, workplace bullying and slut shaming without ever losing its sense of humour or compassion.