The lack of imagination in Late Night continues from there. Katherine is closer to lead of the film than co-lead, as the film is just as much about her breaking out of her rut than it is Molly finding a new profession. Thompson, who doesn’t hide her English accent or play down her patrician manner, seems an odd choice as a colleague of Conan O’Brien or Jay Leno, and her guest line-ups (Doris Kearns Goodwin and Dianne Feinstein on the same night) are more appropriate for Nightline. The film never considers that Thompson might not want to continue doing the same monologue/bit/first guest/second guest/musical act format, or that she would be better suited to the kind of long-form show John Oliver is doing, a show that the film knows exists because it includes references to him. Instead, Late Night tries to force Katherine to mimic her rivals and coddle her audience, instead of finding a new niche in a crowded landscape. One doesn’t cast Thompson because they think she’d be good at doing man-on-the-street gimmicks, or that she’d envision herself as Jimmy Fallon instead of Terry Gross. It’s another instance of the film insisting that something that has not been suitably established (Molly is a good writer, Katherine cares about the lives of her youtube star guests) is instead written in stone.
What the film does get out of Thomspon is a withering turn as a cruel boss, but one that retains audience sympathy through raw aspirational charm. It’s easy to imagine why someone would stay with Katherine, as a drop of praise would cover over barrels of criticism. She wills the film into watchability alongside the earnest Kaling and a supporting cast of heavy hitters like Denis O’Hare, Hugh Dancy, Amy Ryan, and Paul Walter Hauser. Late Night doesn’t communicate any authenticity in its depiction of the talk-show industry, or of a post-#metoo environment where workplace relationships are especially fraught with power dynamics, but it has a greater sense of the writers’ room itself, no doubt a symptom of Kaling’s years of experience on all sides of one. Late Night’s fun in its behind the scenes back-and-forths, and Ganatra makes a film that has existed in one form or another on TV into something that belongs on big screens. It’s shockingly Kaling who emerges as the disappointment with a script that’s far beneath her earlier work. Late Night needed its own writers’ room, not for comedy punch up but to find a better way into its plot and its characters. C