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'Late Night' review: Feel-good comedy about touchy topics

Emma Thompson as talk-show host Katherine Newberry in

Emma Thompson as talk-show host Katherine Newberry in "Late Night." Credit: Amazon Studios/Emily Aragones

PLOT An all-white, all-male comedy writing staff hires its first woman of color.

CAST Mindy Kaling, Emma Thompson, Hugh Dancy

RATED R (language and sexual talk)


BOTTOM LINE Kaling’s screenwriting debut addresses modern sore spots with gentle humor and a big heart.

“There’s never been a worse time to be a white male,” says Tom Campbell, who is one, in Mindy Kaling’s “Late Night.” Kaling plays Molly Patel, who is not one, and who now works with Tom (Reid Scott, "Veep") as a writer for a legendary comedy show. Molly knows she's a diversity hire, and it stings. Then again, she tells Tom, at least she had to beat all the other minority applicants.

“All you had to do,” she says, “was be born.” 

Everyone has a point in “Late Night,” which manages to turn some of the touchiest topics of the moment into a cuddly, feel-good comedy. That may not sound like high praise, but it is. Virtually every day, some tossed-off tweet or casual comment threatens to explode into another Civil War, but for Kaling it's fodder for observational humor and little jabs at deep truths. “Late Night,” her screenwriting debut, could have been a master-class in score-settling and finger-pointing. Instead, Kaling gathers up her characters, even the most privileged and patriarchal, for one big group noogie. 

Directed by Nisha Ganatra, “Late Night” was inspired by Kaling’s experience writing for Conan O’Brien and seems closely modeled on “The Devil Wears Prada.” Emma Thompson plays Katherine Newbury, a talk-show host whose talent and high standards come with a cold heart and a sharp tongue. After 28 years, Katherine’s somewhat fusty show is facing the chopping block (Amy Ryan plays a vindictive network president) unless it can freshen up its shtick. 

Enter Molly, whose slim resume somehow gets her to the hiring writer, Brad, played by a beautifully beleaguered Denis O’Hare. After warning Molly about the non-PC work environment (“Would you consider yourself a litigious person?” he inquires), Brad shrugs and welcomes her aboard. 

“Late Night” is filled with sparkling little scenes like that one. Kaling clearly knows this world, how its people talk, what they dream of, who they hate. Hugh Dancy plays Charlie, a good-looking writer with a side talent for sleeping around; Scott's Tom has a giant ego balanced out by a good heart; Max Casella is Burditt, the jaded veteran. As for Katherine, she’s not an instantly recognizable character — a legendary female comedian who never hires women? — but Thompson’s confidence and light comedic touch make her work.

What makes "Late Night” such a pleasure is Kaling's big-hearted approach to her characters. White or brown, male or female, in the end they all want to the same thing: To stand out, but also fit in.

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