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The Hostess with the Mostest

Mindy Kaling
Mindy Kaling
Amazon Studios
 102 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed ByNisha Ganatra
Starring: Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling    
Late Night

Bad bosses have been around since Biblical times, and movies about bad bosses have been around at least since Charlie Chaplin’s travails in Modern Times. These employers who make life miserable for their subordinates general follow one of two main character arcs. First, there are the Ebenezer Scrooges, who have a third-act epiphany for various reasons and wind up becoming genuinely nice people. Then, there are the Franklin Harts, named after Dabney Coleman’s prototypical sleazeball in 9 to 5. These bosses are repellant, aggravating people from beginning to end, and often receive a much deserved and greatly appreciated third-act comeuppance. But every now and then, a movie comes along that doesn’t follow these familiar tropes but instead tries something different, like the current workplace comedy Late Night. The result here is an original and hilarious movie whose twists along the way will keep audiences off balance.


Late Night was written by Mindy Kaling, who plays one of the writers for a late night talk show. The fictional show is hosted by Katherine Newberry (Emma Thompson), who, at one time won a fistful of Emmys and other awards but has been coasting, to declining ratings, for years. She has adopted an attitude of cynical superiority that results in her stubbornly insisting on booking guests like Doris Kearns Goodwin while her competitors are booking the Kardashians. Finally, the new network president (Amy Ryan) gives Katherine an ultimatum: increase the show’s ratings soon or be replaced. The primary candidate for her hosting slot is a slimy, sexist, comic named Daniel Tennant (Ike Barinholtz).


Katherine’s task is easier said than done since, as an employer, she’s aloof and harsh towards her writing staff. When she fires one writer for asking for a raise because his wife had a baby, she then decides that what she needs on her show is diversity. She orders her assistant Brad (Denis O’Hare) to hire a female writer. That turns out to be Molly, a factory worker who also happened to be the only female who applied.


Needless to say, Molly does not hit it off well with most of her co-writers who resent her for crashing their boys’ club (they even use the women’s restroom for their number two business, as Molly quickly learns to her dismay). Nor does she start out well with Katherine, who berates Molly for criticizing the show for being out of touch without offering any suggestions for improvements. And, when Molly does write some very mild but topical political humor, Katherine refuses to use the jokes in her monologue. Finally, Molly walks out of a time-wasting late-night session to attend a charity comedy function to which she had committed weeks earlier, Katherine tells her not to come back if she leaves.


Of course, Late Night would be about 30 minutes if that was actually Katherine’s final word on the subject, so she decides to follow Molly and put in an impromptu appearance at the comedy show. That routine starts poorly, since Katherine is really out of touch with today’s humor, but she soon regains her footing and, moreover, decides that Molly’s ideas are useful after all. 


At this point in Late Night, most viewers probably feel that they have a good idea about how the movie is going to proceed. And they’d be half right. Katherine and Molly figure out that they are good for each other, but there are several missteps and backsliding along the way. Further, there are several reveals about several characters who wind up being considerably different from how they are first presented. Plot twists and character reversals are par for the course in mysteries and thrillers, but, usually, in romantic comedies, what you see is what you get, as scripts aren’t much given to subtlety. Here, however, Mindy Kaling lets the characters develop, and the result is a film that doesn’t rush madly from plot point to plot point but, instead, takes its time.


Kaling also is quite generous to her co-star in the screenplay. Late Night is clearly an Emma Thompson vehicle, perhaps her best part ever, and she makes the most of it. Her dry wit is on display on numerous occasions, best of all in a scene in which Katherine has Daniel Tennant on her show as a guest, ostensibly to announce that she’s turning the reins over to him. However, she turns the entire scenario around, leaving him twisting in the wind. It’s a great scene, but only one of Emma Thompson’s good moments in the movie. She also has the benefit of some great material from Kaling, such as her comment to the writer she fires that giving him a raise for his new child is like giving a raise to a drug addict.


Katherine Newbury has her tender, emotional side too, and it manifests itself in her relationship with her husband, Walter (John Lithgow), a great concert pianist now crippled with probably terminal Parkinson’s Disease. The scenes between Lithgow and Thompson run the entire emotional gamut, and their relationship is one of the more complex and believable that you’ll see in current films.


Late Night is also a sharp satire of the current state of television and scores points about racial and sexual bias as well. It’s exceedingly ironic that while Katherine is trying to keep her position as the only woman on late-night television, she’s also promoting rampant sexism on her all-white writing staff. Social media comes in for barbs as well, with Katherine skewering a guest whose only claim to fame is the enormous popularity of the videos she posts on YouTube in which she sniffs her dog’s butt. Not all the humor works, but a large percentage does, and the laugh lines are downright hilarious.


Sadly, Late Night seems to be suffering the fate of Booksmart and other well-written comedies that lack big names or a big plot hook. However, audiences who skip Late Night will miss out on one of the funniest films of the year. I have a feeling that both Emma Thompson and Kaling’s script will be remembered come end-of-year award season. For now, however, audiences can still make Late Night a perfect night at the theater.     

In this clip, Emma Thompson's meeting with her writing staff doesn't go well.

Read other reviews of Late Night: 

Late Night (2019) on IMDb