Emma Thompson could be a much bigger movie star, only she has the good sense not to. The British actress and multiple Oscar winner possesses a rare screen charisma that makes level-headedness and clarity of feeling seem downright sexy, and, given a chance, she can be peerlessly funny. But “Late Night” is one of Thompson’s too-few leading roles in a career that has recently seen a lot of character parts, voice-overs, family fare, and under-distributed projects like “The Children Act” (2018, worthwhile) and “The Love Punch” (2013, head for the hills).
No matter, here she is, and she’s a prickly delight as Katherine Newbury, a talk-show legend increasingly out of touch in a YouTube world. The movie, which has been written by Thompson’s costar, Mindy Kaling (“The Mindy Project”), is not much more than actively pleasant, a bi-generational empowerment comedy that hits its story beats with comfortable obviousness. But the stars play well together, the supporting bench is deep, and Thompson gets to put her own spin on a “Devil Wears Prada”-style dragon boss. You could do worse and you have.
A British stand-up who 25 years earlier struck it lucky in America, Katherine is positioned by Kaling’s script as an institution, which means she’s a dinosaur. (Think late-period Letterman with an Oxbridge accent and a better wardrobe.) There’s a shark of a network president (Amy Ryan, excellent) circling for new blood, an up-and-coming bad-boy comedian (Ike Barinholtz) angling for Newbury’s time slot, and a writers’ room full of men whose names she’s never bothered to learn.
Kaling’s Molly Patel, by contrast, is a factory chemist and would-be comic who, through plot curlicues not worth detailing here, is hired solely because “Katherine needs a woman writer, even though she hates women.” A rank outsider, insecure but optimistic, Molly has to simultaneously overcome the boy’s club sexism of the writers’ room and prove her bona fides to a boss whose sarcasm can reduce underlings to a smudge of grease on the floor.
As much as she can seem like the embodiment of all that is kind and good in the world (see “Howard’s End,” 1992), Thompson is a master of invective — the withering observation that cuts people off at the legs, the bon mot that slips like a shiv through the ribs. For all the good will packed into “Late Night,” the movie comes truly to life only when Katherine is at her most lacerating, because sentiment is not Thompson’s forte — brutal, intelligent honesty is. (Katherine to Molly: “Your earnestness is very hard to be around. Successful people hate their admirers and can’t stand being complimented.”)
The arrogant talk-show host will of course have to have her comeuppance before the tale is done, but the star manages to make even her humbling seem imperious. You don’t mind the machinations of the plot, because Kaling the screenwriter and Nisha Ganatra the director give lots of business and personality to the supporting roles. The writers’ room is an amusing motley of types — the lothario (Hugh Dancy), the old-timer (Max Casella), the good-guy rival (Reid Scott) — that keeps paying dividends throughout the running time, and John Lithgow provides an emotional anchor as Katherine’s ailing older husband.
Ganatra has directed a great deal of television (Amazon’s “Transparent,” notably), and Kaling, of course, owes her rise to TV. It’s not surprising, then, that “Late Night” has a television feel to it, with its acrid “30 Rock” edge blunted by an awareness of what it means to be a woman in the bro’s club of late-night comedy. The movie serves up its points with warmth and wit but also with a genial didacticism that keeps it from rising to the level of classic workplace comedy. “Late Night” is fundamentally nice, while the most cheering aspect of Katherine Newbury is that she is fundamentally not.
You’ll have a good time nevertheless. But don’t be surprised if you come out wishing that there actually were a late-night comedy show starring Emma Thompson instead of just a movie about one.
Directed by Nisha Ganatra. Written by Mindy Kaling. Starring Emma Thompson, Kaling, John Lithgow, Hugh Dancy. At Boston theaters, Coolidge Corner, suburbs. R (language throughout, some sexual references).