A late-night talk show host (Emma Thompson) suspects that she may soon be losing her long-running show. In an attempt to freshen up her writing staff, Molly (Mindy Kaling) is hired - despite the fact she has never written for TV before, and has no professional experience.
Late night comedy talk shows are a distinctly American creation, as they've never successfully been replicated in any other country. That being said, most everyone is aware of what they are, who they are and have their own particular tastes that suit. Some might prefer vintage Letterman, others are more partial to the more recent crop such as Jimmy Kimmel or Jimmy Fallon. Either way, trying to gather up a full movie out of it and make it appeal to anyone other than comedy nerds is a big ask.
Yet, as with anything Mindy Kaling turns her hand to, the enthusiasm just bursts out of the screen and helps to carry you along. You know right well by listening to the characters she's written that not only does she have a deep well of love and admiration for comedy, she also has something to say about it. That's really where 'Late Night' drills in on - the fact that women have been more or less absent from this fertile ground of comedy, and have never been given a chance on it either.
Emma Thompson's clipped dialogue suits her perfectly, and we're reminded that she has incredible comedic timing, but has the versatility to easily slip them in between the dramatic beats of the story. The relationship she shares with her on-screen husband John Lithgow feels lived-in and genuine, whilst the dynamic between her and her writing staff is equally genuine - but nowhere near as tender. Mindy Kaling, meanwhile, channels her wide-eyed, plucky demeanour and makes it work for her - all of it falling flat on the jaded writing staff like 'Veep' alum Reid Scott and odd casting choice Hugh Dancy.
Director Nisha Ganatra's years directing television serves her well here, as the shots are unfussy and direct in their meaning and objective. The on-camera segments with Emma Thompson look real and like they could be for an actual show, and the pacing and editing keep it all moving along without losing any of the emotional beats of the story either.
All in all, 'Late Night' is a decent effort - but again, the appeal for it is somewhat limited to comedy nerds and an audience that has somewhat deeper knowledge and understanding of late-night comedy talk shows than most might. The story is well-written and it's all acted well, but it never quite makes the leap into being truly outstanding.