Maybe Dark Phoenix should have been a comedy? It’s been a good few weeks for smart adult comedies focused on powerful women: Just over a month since the hilarious Dark Horse comes Late Night, with Emma Thompson as Katherine Newberry, an icy talk show host whose successful show of two decades’ duration is on the skids.
The screenplay is by Mindy Kaling, who plays Molly Patel, an aspiring television writer hired by Newberry’s producer (Denis O’Hare) in a desperate ploy to diversify their show’s all-white, all-male, all-coasting writing staff. The setup is akin to The Devil Wears Prada: Optimistic and ambitious young woman challenges the defenses of a seemingly heartless cultural icon. (There’s even a scene where Molly is told to “get in the car,” which may or may not be a nod to the earlier film.) Chilly older woman begins to thaw.
Kaling wrote the film specifically for Thompson, whose best roles in the past decade have been similarly inaccessible, successful women with hidden layers of emotion beneath a steely surface — think The Children Act or Saving Mr. Banks. Thompson is thoroughly entertaining as Katherine, who has never even met most of her writers and refers to them all by numbers, too aloof to bother to learn their names.
Late Night is not as surprising or transgressive as Dark Horse, but it’s nearly as funny. Tailored to Kaling’s warm, sympathetic persona — a stark contrast to Seth Rogan — it flows pleasantly through its story arc and subplots. Molly is wooed by the writing room Lothario, Charlie (Hugh Dancy), and clashes with senior writer Tom (Reid Scott), while Katherine confronts her neglect of her ailing professor husband, Walter (John Lithgow).
Naturally, the scenes with Thompson and Kaling together are the film’s best moments, on the Prada model, and there’s plenty to keep the mood buoyant throughout. Clips of the bits Katherine tapes to enliven her talk show, for example, are clever enough to leave you wanting more.
Director Nisha Ganatra, an experience television director, doesn’t make any innovative choices, but she gives her talented cast the room they need to shine and doesn’t let the proceedings bog down. Kaling’s more rote twists are quickly dealt with — what? Charlie’s a heel? No! — while her more thoughtful scenes — say, with Katherine and Walter — play out with generous attention.
Late Night might not immediately break through with moviegoers who aren’t already fans of Thompson or Kaling, but it more than earns a spot among recent women-led comedy joys along with Long Shot, The Spy Who Dumped Me, and Can You Ever Forgive Me? Let’s hope they keep coming.
Grade: B-plus. Rated R. Now playing at the AMC River Hills, Carolina Cinemark and Regal Biltmore Grande.
(Photo: Emily Aragones, courtesy of Amazon Studios)