Sometimes a movie just needs a dame. The Devil Wears Prada got Meryl Streep, an ice queen stranded on dry land, to turn a mediocre novel into something like a cinematic master class.
Late Night has Emma Thompson — an actual honorific Dame, as of last year — whose haughty gravitas holds the center of a breezy, uneven comedy. She is Katherine Newbury, a talk-show host whose tagline is “Excellence without compromise,” and whose golden scrum of Emmys testifies to a long, vaunted career. But is there a place in circa-2019 television for a woman who insists on booking Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin while Jimmy Fallon is using his competing hour to wash sheepdogs with Robert Downey, Jr.?
The answer, as the film opens, is clearly not. Katherine is dusty; her ratings are plummeting. Worse, she’s a self-proclaimed feminist with a writers’ room so smugly, overwhelmingly white and male it makes the Dartmouth men’s crew team look diversified. “I don’t think you think you hate women,” her stage manager (Denis O’Hare) suggests delicately, when she dismisses even the idea that she may not be an equal-opportunity employer.
And so, in a series of quick and unlikely events, a Pennsylvania chemical-plant manager with zero TV experience named Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling, who also penned the script) finds herself the lucky beneficiary of what everyone around her takes pains to make clear is a diversity hire.
Bunked up at an aunt’s house in Queens, Molly is the kind of girl who dresses like the CW’s idea of a junior executive, dreamily quotes Yeats, and brings boxes of cupcakes to her first day. She is, in other words, chum for the Newbury sharks (including Hugh Dancy and Veep’s Reid Scott) with their Ivy League sneers and rumpled button downs.
Katherine, too, seems to think she’s a perfect idiot, if she deigns to think of her at all. But as Molly begins to find her voice, she just might be what the show — and her imperious boss — need to save themselves.
Kaling’s character is charming but a little all over the place; she sobs openly in the office one minute, the turns around a brutally on-point critique the next. It’s Thompson whose laser-cut specificity gives the story its spine: Platinum-quiffed and spectacularly outfitted in a series of tailored suits (she’s The Devil Who Wears All of Barneys, basically), her Katherine is a smart, tough woman who hasn’t had to compromise or even seriously consider her place in the world in years — even with the prodding of her exceptionally wise husband (a lovely, understated John Lithgow).
Director Nisha Ganatra (Transparent, Better Things) nimbly mixes classic rom-com tropes with fresher ideas on race, class, and the tangled ideologies of modern feminism, though her tone can also feel scattershot and sometimes too sitcom-ish. The best scenes in Late Night are consistently the ones where the movie’s main stars spar and banter and intermittently connect; two unlikely satellites smashing into each other’s orbits, and maybe finding themselves in the wreckage. B