Late Night follows the general outline of a romantic comedy. The twist is that this pairing is not a romantic couple, but a boss and employee. Though the movie follows that familiar shape, they are not romantically linked at all. It works surprisingly well.
Emma Thompson stars a Katherine Newberry, the long-time star of a late night talk show who the new studio head is forcing out of her role. She doesn’t make a great first impression, she seems very complacent and a little disinterested in her show. She has never even met most of the writers that work for the show. When it is brought to her attention that she has no women writing for her show, she instructs her producer to hire a woman writer to fill a newly opened vacancy. Mindy Kaling plays Molly, the new writer who gets that job. She is a recent blue collar worker who aspires to be a comedian and idolizes Katherine.
There are struggles. Molly struggles with her new job, getting to know the ins and outs of her profession and dealing with a lack of respect from her coworkers. Katherine, newly reinvigorated about keeping her job, struggles to understand a new generation. Soon it becomes clear that Molly, who is a fan of Katherine’s older, more successful material, is one of the best at helping Katherine connect with the audience she is seeking without coming off as condescending.
It really does mostly follow a rom-com structure. They meet and initially clash. Then they learn how well they work together. Then there is a third act separation, where they both try to get along without each other before the big reunion near the end. It is a platonic rom-com. The structure works surprisingly well, largely thanks to the performances of Kaling and Thompson. Thompson seems like a real late night host in her cadence and comfort on stage. She is also believable demanding and slightly out of touch. Kaling is terrific as the peppy and generally upbeat newcomer who, for the most part, refuses to let the vagaries of the job get her down.
It really succeeds by making its two lead roles fully realized people, even if no one else it. Katherine has a history, a husband who is succumbing to an incurable disease and some indiscretions. Molly is a little naive but not stupid. She is inexperienced, but she is also hardworking. She refuses to be talked down to, but does not refuse to learn. The understanding between the two of them feels natural. I also like that the change that Katherine has to go through is not changing who she is, but simply doing better of showing who she is, a skill she seems to have lost through her struggles with her husband and his disease, and just simply growing old. It isn’t that she needs to dumb down her show, as the first instict is, but to more clearly communicate its goals.
Late Night is also a comedy that at least seems to have something to say. It isn’t deep or profound, but there is a message here about sex and age and class. It doesn’t beat the viewer over the head with a message (which can be a very good thing, see Sorry to Bother You), but it is undeniably there. The movie is just a solid, refreshing bit of summer fun.