“You’re fired, obviously,” says late-night talk-show host Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson), dismissing an underling as one might brush away a tiresome speck of lint. The plummy, hand-waving derision of Thompson’s tone — she’s resenting this person for necessitating the words, for causing her to expend energy saying something that shouldn’t need to be said — is a tiny masterpiece, as is virtually everything else Thompson says in “Late Night,” a glossy, enjoyable workplace comedy directed by Nisha Ganatra and written by Mindy Kaling.
It’s no stretch at all to imagine Thompson as a Colbert-ish talk-show star (hmm, maybe somebody needs to get on this), and the smart, funny “Late Night” puts her smack in the middle of a “Devil Wears Prada”-meets-“30 Rock”-ish tale. Kaling plays Molly Patel, an eager young writer quickly hired after it’s pointed out to the imperious Katherine that her show is out of touch and her writers’ room is made up entirely of white men. (Katherine breathes different air than her staff, so much so that she’s never actually met most of her writers.) So begins a two-pronged story, in which Katherine learns to change with the times and Molly begins to find her voice.
“Late Night” touches on a number of hot-button issues — workplace diversity, sexual harassment, privilege — but it does so lightly; Kaling, as in her irresistible TV series “The Mindy Project,” has made a science of witty, contemporary rom-com, and she sprinkles “Late Night” with welcome laughter. Breathless, dazzled Molly (“I’m so happy I feel sick,” she beams, upon hearing she’s got the job) and brittle, over-it Katherine make an appealing team, with the older woman becoming an unexpected mentor. “If you want people to think of you as something other than a diversity hire, you have to make them,” she tells Molly, offering wine and advice. “It’s not fair, but it never is for women.”
Like Kaling’s Molly, “Late Night” is immensely likable; so much so that you wish it were perfect. A subplot involving Katherine’s saintly husband (John Lithgow) never finds its feet, and the film’s last act feels rather too fairy-tale-y: Things get swiftly and easily resolved, impossible people magically become less impossible, and everyone’s story gets delightfully wrapped up. If only real workplaces were like this — but, in the company of Thompson and Kaling, it’s a lot of fun to think so.
★★★½ “Late Night,” with Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, Hugh Dancy, John Lithgow, Max Kinsella, Denis O’Hare, Reid Scott, Amy Ryan. Directed by Nisha Ganatra, from a screenplay by Kaling. 102 minutes. Rated R for language throughout and some sexual references. Opens June 14 at multiple theaters.