Emma Thompson plays legendary talk-show host Katherine Newberry, who is the only woman ever to have hosted a late night television talk show for so long – 30 years in fact. Arrogant and bossy, she keeps her all male, all white college grad writing team on a short leash with caustic humour and the threat of the sack.
But her ratings are starting to slide and her approach is looking increasingly dusty and old fashioned in today’s world. So when a new, ratings chasing programme controller Caroline Morton (Amy Ryan) takes over the television station and Katherine is accused of being “a woman who hates women” and threatened with being unseated, she decides on impulse as sop to diversity to hire Asian-American Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling). Molly is a quality controller in a chemical laboratory with no writing experience but she does have bags of earnest enthusiasm and, it turns out, a useful and reliable instinct for where the show is going wrong and a talent for writing good jokes.
This “diversity hire” predictably puts the male writers’ noses out of joint. Once they’ve realised she’s not the new dogsbody hired to get their coffee but part of the actual writing team, they react with eyebrow raising comments such as “I wish I was a woman of colour so I could get a job with zero qualifications!”.
The versatile and talented Ms Kaling both produced the film and wrote its ultra smart script and it is sharp, slap in the face lines and observations like the above, which give the film its sparkle and edge. It is unashamedly and refreshingly female centric and astute in its social observations and breezy cynicism. It is also very funny.
Thompson is terrific as Katherine – bossy, brittle but also vulnerable, her dry Englishness contrasting beautifully with her American colleagues. The role was written with her in mind and the film wouldn’t be anything like as enjoyable without her. Katherine’s softer side we see in her scenes with her husband Walter. a one time leading academic now laid low with Parkinson’s disease and played on a gentle note by John Lithgow,.
The centre of the film though is the complex relationship between Katherine and Molly, which develops over the course of the story from condescension in response to earnest adoration to mentor/mentee mutual respect and even a favourite aunt and beloved niece kind of loving.
The young white guys of the team are somewhat sidelined, which is the point of the plot. But Reid Scott makes an impression as the chief writer, who turns out not to be the total white privileged chauvinist he first appears to be, while Hugh Dancy as Charlie, the predatory Lothario of the writers’ room also makes his mark.
There are times when the Hollywood demands of formulaic plot twists and resolutions slightly mar Ms Kaling’s beautifully written script but not enough to seriously spoil a delicious female double act, which takes on ageism, the menopause, racism, slut shaming, work place sexism and a few more pointed issues without ever losing its sense of humour nor indeed its sense of humanity.