“Late Night” is a pretty good situation comedy about women fighting for their rights and for recognition in a field that has seen them overlooked for too long.
The trouble is that this TV-style sitcom is a motion picture that plays to those sitcom beats too frequently.
It’s a workplace comedy that’s full of characters that don’t change much and designated laugh lines, and it has an ending that comes straight from a formula.
Speaking truth to power requires more teeth than “Late Night” has to bite with.
But at least the workplace being a late-night TV talk show is inspired, the film has a great cast, and when the movie is funny, it’s warm-hearted funny.
The idea comes from the mind of Mindy Kaling, who knows what she’s doing from her years writing and acting on “The Office” and her own acclaimed “The Mindy Project.”
With this being her feature-film screenplay debut, she wants to say something important: Women are funny too, and they deserve more high-profile opportunities to make us laugh.
Her story hinges a great deal on things that are unfair and on two women who love comedy. But one is being denied the opportunity to participate, and the other is being told her time on the stage is up.
The movie has something of an unintended fantasy element to it: We’re told that Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson, who is tough, sarcastic and brilliant for much of the film) became the first woman to host a late-night talk show in 1991 and has been celebrated for 28 years and won tons of awards.
I remember 1991, and it wasn’t any more open to a woman taking over such a role than 1986 was in rejecting Joan Rivers in short order.
Just ask Samantha Bee how lonely her presence is on TBS, which is far short of a major network audience.
Moving past this, we see Newbury’s show, and it’s a standard-fare program if your standard is Johnny Carson.
The host is witty rather than goofy. She doesn’t pander to her guests or audience. Her guests include actors and singers, of course, but also politicians and authors who talk about subjects like, you know, politics and writing.
The movie makes it clear that such a show is from the time of dinosaurs, not having any gimmicky moments in studio and on-the-street public interaction that might create social-media moments that could go “viral.”
All I could think of was Carson spinning in his grave and my yelling at people to get off my lawn.
Moving past this roadblock, we meet the other woman in this story: Molly Patel, a chemical company employee who cracks up her co-workers at the factory and who now hopes to crack the writing staff when there’s an opening at Newbury’s program.
Kaling is the affirmation-believing, Keats-quoting woman who through something of an interview-cute moment ends up as a “diversity hire” who’s unafraid of joining a staff of all-white men comedy writers.
“I saw the writers,” Molly says of the limp, lazy boys’ club. “I’m not worried about masculinity.”
We’re told that the host “doesn’t like women,” which seems to be important to the theme until Thompson’s leader makes it clear she doesn’t like anyone outside of her husband, played by John Lithgow as a dear fellow with increasing Parkinson’s symptoms.
Thompson makes her disdain clear in scenes that establish such things — like how Newbury will fight for her show when threatened with losing it, or how she needs Molly’s youth and talent despite pushing her away more than once.
These things happen in a snappy, sitcommy fashion that doesn’t allow the movie to breathe with its humor, but it does make for many amusing situations.
“Late Night” is very formulaic, but at least it’s very funny much of the time.
Kaling is joined by comedic support like Reid Scott (of “Veep”) and Paul Walter Hauser (of “I, Tonya”) and more in that writers’ room of talent, and their back-and-forth chemistry is what keeps the movie moving.
The theme (expressed best in a quick quote between Molly, “It’s not fair,” and Katherine,“It never is for women”) never achieves any depth beyond surface sentiment.
But that narrative, coming from a strong woman of Indian descent, is in that manner original — and it’s a voice that needs to be heard.