Ladies and gentlemen, Emma Thompson has done it again.
This time, though, she had help from Mindy Kaling.
More than 25 years after Thompson took Best Actress for her sensational work in “Howards End,” she continues to burn up the screen in the terrific new dramedy “Late Night,” with a script by Kaling -- who also co-stars.
Thompson plays Kate Newbury, a successful talk show host whose ratings are plummeting. The stodgy, prim and viperous Newbury is floundering amid the cutting-edge antics of Fallon and Kimmel, not to mention trendy young YouTube stars with millions of followers. When her growing “irrelevance” is attributed partly to an all-male, all-white writing staff, she impulsively hires Molly (Kaling), a woman of color with a keen critical eye and a modern sensibility -- but no experience whatsoever.
Since Kaling has made her mark as a comedian (“The Office,” “The Mindy Project”), one expects “Late Night” to be principally a comedy -- and it does have several laugh-out-loud moments. But it builds an extraordinary, sometimes tearful power as it moves along -- as the sensitive Molly stands up for herself, and Newbury learns that while her abrasive personality has carved out a great career, it’s also made a train-wreck of nearly every relationship in her life. “Late Night” isn’t always funny, but in the hands of Kaling and especially Thompson, it’s utterly gripping from start to finish.
Indeed, what’s most remarkable is the way Thompson somehow gets us to care about a woman who can be astoundingly cruel, ruthless and self-centered. We can tell there’s a good woman in there struggling to get out; and fortunately, the film has enough other stuff going on that we don’t feel bored waiting for the inevitable turn-around.
Along the way, there’s more than a little bravura work from Thompson; highlights include her speech on the first night back after a scandal, and the touching final scene with Kate’s long-suffering husband -- beautifully played by John Lithgow.
(I may have fallen hard for this sequence because it’s set in Theater 80 St. Mark’s, where I spent about half my life during the years I lived in Manhattan.)
A long-time Thompson fan, I approached “Late Night” as an item of passing interest in a long career with many landmark performances (“Sense and Sensibility,” “Remains of the Day,” “Saving Mr. Banks”); but the British actress’s work here is as good as anything she’s ever done. With two films opening this weekend, four since October and five more in the works, Emma the Great is still at the absolute top of her game.
Long may she reign.
directed by Nisha Ganatra
Run time: 102 mins.
* * * 1/2 (out of four)
Rated R for language