Watching "Late Night," an enjoyably zippy if scattershot comedy about a veteran late-night host and her fresh-faced new writing hire, a persistent thought runs through your head: How have we been abiding without a steady supply of leading roles like this for Emma Thompson, and why haven't we by now elected her ruler of all living things?
As a David Letterman-like figure whose three decades on the air have left her disengaged and fearsome, Thompson is so regally good that you crave more of an actress who certainly never went away but who has in recent years often kept to the margins of movies.
She was Mrs. Potts in "Beauty and the Beast," a memorable P.L. Travers in "Saving Mr. Banks" and gave "Love Actually" its best, most tender moments. Her status as someone whom anyone in their right mind adores is absolutely assured. But it's been a while since her period-drama heyday of "Howard's End," ''Remains of the Day," ''In the Name of the Father" and "Sense and Sensibility," which she also scripted.
Nisha Ganatra's "Late Night," penned by Mindy Kaling, is a clear reminder of what we've been missing. Her Katherine Newbury, like Meryl Streep's Miranda Priestly, is a boss from hell. She hasn't ever met most of her writing staff, and when she does, gives them numbers, one through eight, to remember them by. She makes all around her, including some of her guests, tremble.
Her reign in late-night television, though, is at risk of coming to an end. She's visited early in "Late Night" by the network head (Amy Ryan) who tells her she will soon be replaced by someone who will pick up the ratings and program more viral-ready guests than Doris Kearns Goodwin to compete with Jimmy Fallon's cuddly antics. So resentful of the intrusion is Katherine that she's not even sure she'll put up much of a fight.
The twist comes from Molly Patel (Kaling), who's hired by the show's producer (Denis O'Hare) after it's brought to Katherine's attention that she has a problem with women. All of her writers are men. "Just a hire a woman!" she barks at the producer, just as he's sitting across from Molly, who has no experience in comedy but has been a chipper efficiency expert at a Pennsylvania chemical plant.
Late-night TV has, of course, been a boy's world for most of its history, a lineage "Late Night" has a lot of fun playing with. It doesn't always quite gel. Could Katherine deny her own femininity while simultaneously being a late-night trailblazer for women?
"Late Night," an Amazon Studios release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for language throughout and some sexual references. Running time: 102 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.