“Late Night” is a swell romantic comedy of a very particular sort, a film that details the delightful attachment two women have not to any man (or even each other) but to the profession they’re completely devoted to.
Because that shared passion is comedy, and because the women are played by Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling, both in tip-top form, “Late Night” is that rare thing: a deft and intelligent entertainment that can touch on serious issues because being funny is something it never forgets to do.
Kaling, a creative force on television (“The Office,” “The Mindy Project”) not only costars and produces here, she’s written the script. More than that, she’s given the leading role, and the best lines, to Thompson, the woman for whom she wrote the part of Katherine Newbury.
The longtime host (28 years and counting) of a late-night network talk show, the acerbic, cerebral Newbury is a transplanted Brit of high standards and withering hauteur, someone whose idea of a coveted guest is more Doris Kearns Goodwin than Johnny Depp.
A winner of numerous Emmys and a believer in “excellence without compromise,” Newbury is introduced getting an American humor award and cracking, “Is there no one funny left in your country?”
But, as skillfully directed with an eye for both character and comedy by TV veteran Nisha Ganatra (“Transparent,” “Better Things”), Newbury is headed for a crisis she neither anticipates nor is quite sure how to handle.
Armed with statistics indicating that the venerated host has been in a ratings slide for a decade, new network president Caroline Morton (a forceful Amy Ryan) tells Newbury that, like it or lump it, her current year is going to be her last.
Horrified at the crassness of the stand-up she suspects is her designated successor (“Mindy Project” costar Ike Barinholtz) and determined to hold onto her job, Newbury does something unprecedented: She gets to know her writers.
Previously so distant from the people who come up with her material that she wasn’t even aware one of them had died years earlier, Newbury accompanies long-suffering executive producer Brad (an expert Denis O’Hare) and enlists the gang in coming up with stratagems that will bolster her ratings and save her career.
As written by Kaling, who drew on her own experiences and stories she’s heard, the “Late Night” writers room is a comedic treat.
An all-white, all-male bastion of bro culture, acted by expert players including Max Casella, Hugh Dancy, John Early, Paul Walter Hauser and Reid Scott, the room is made up of very different and very funny individuals, each one a memorable type to everyone but Newbury, who ends up referring to them, in one of the film’s memorable conceits, by numbers instead of names.
Stung by criticism that she hates women, Newbury orders Brad to hire a woman come what may (Kaling was herself a diversity hire once upon a time), which is where Molly Patel enters the picture.
Though she loves comedy and has been a fan of Newbury since childhood, Molly is an unlikely hire at best. Not only does she have zilch writing room experience, her previous job was handling quality control in a chemical plant (“not a factory,” she amusingly insists) in Pennsylvania.
Currently crashing with an aunt and uncle in Queens, Molly benefits from a series of flukes to land both an interview with Brad and a 13-week stint in the writers room — which is so unprepared for a female colleague that she is mistaken for a new production assistant and ends up seated on an overturned trash can.
Though Newbury’s hard-edged wit makes Thompson’s the showier role, Kaling has ensured (how could she not?) that Molly — introduced in a classic shot striding purposefully down a Manhattan street — is a more complex, nuanced character than we may be expecting.
Yes, Molly is professionally inexperienced, but her tart tongue shows she is no naif. Yet Molly can be almost unbearably earnest, capable of seriously reciting a celebrated Yeats line, asking New York to “tread softly, because you tread on my dreams.” How New York responds is sure to get a laugh.
Her snappy patter notwithstanding, Newbury is a complex character as well, revealing a more human side in her relationship with low-key husband Walter Lovell (a letter-perfect John Lithgow), an individual who is honest with her no matter what.
While watching Molly find her footing — both with her various writers room colleagues and her imperious boss — is the comic heart of “Late Night,” the film also finds space for emotional heft as well as more serious concerns about gender equality, ethical standards and the price of celebrity.
Doing all that can’t have been easy, but making it seem like it was may be the most satisfying of “Late Night’s” many agreeable accomplishments. If summer is a movie season not known for wit, this is a most welcome exception.
Rating: R, for language throughout and some sexual references
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes
Playing: ArcLight Hollywood; Landmark, West Los Angeles