Every year at the Sundance Film Festival there is always one movie that people can’t stop talking about. This year, that movie was director Nisha Ganatra’s Late Night: a comedy written by and co-starring Mindy Kaling. Now the rest of us finally get to see what all the fuss was about in Park City, and, delightfully, it turns out the hype, at least mostly, is justified.
Katherine Newberry (Emma Thompson) has been the queen of late night television for over 30 years. The only female late night show host on the air, the woman is an icon. However, after three decades, her show has become predictable, and is largely viewed as out of touch with the more hip, younger demographic. In a last ditch effort to save the show (and more importantly to Newberry, her job), the show takes a chance on newcomer Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling) as a new writer. She becomes the sole woman of color in a writer’s room that is otherwise entirely white and entirely male. So clearly, no problems there.
Of course, Molly actually has all of the problems. She doesn’t actually have any experience in a writer’s room, and has no idea how to handle herself in a professional setting. When her boss asks her what she thinks, she answers honestly – which doesn’t go over well given that Newberry expects her staff to simply tell her what she wants to hear and then shut up. All of her new co-workers hate her for being a “diversity hire,” with the lingering ideology being that every door is wide open for minorities in Hollywood (something Paul Walter Hauser’s Mancuso even says outright at one point).
Late Night isn’t subtle with its messaging, but you don’t need to be subtle to be good (or right), and this comedy about two women at two very different points in their lives life fighting for success in a man’s world is actually quite good… and also right. While the points it makes are clear, it never lets those points get in the way of the laughs. The script is whip smart, and has an energy that keeps you engaged. It elevates what would otherwise be a fairly standard by-the-numbers comedy to something worth attention.
As part of that smart writing come two very smartly-written characters. One would expect Mindy Kaling to write to her own strengths, and she certainly does that. Kaling clearly feels equally at home playing awkward and in over her head as she does when she’s standing her ground and getting in the face of the men who continually overlook her. Perhaps Molly was a diversity hire, but she’s got the job the now, and it’s up to her to do it well enough to keep it – and it’s an energy Kaling projects well.
Kaling is easily relatable. While the struggle to be successful writing jokes on a late night comedy show might not be something we all understand, the larger struggle for respect certainly is.
All that being said, Kaling has written an even better part for Emma Thompson in Late Night. While we’ve certainly seen Thompson be funny (she got her start in television comedy), seeing her be this funny will probably come as a shock to many. Thompson’s delivery is so dry you could watch it while pouring a glass of gin and get the perfect martini. Her character arc is also compelling, and it’s the one place that takes Newberry in directions that may surprise you.
There are a few places where Late Night doesn’t quite stick the landing. There’s a minor subplot involving Molly’s romantic life that just gets in the way of the good stuff. While I suppose it’s important to see a woman fight for her career and find the love life as well, it’s not given enough time to be relevant in the larger story being told, and feels like it’s only shoehorned in because it thinks it needs to be there.
I never would have predicted that Mindy Kaling and Emma Thompson would make for one of the better comedy duos in recent memory, but there you go. Late Night isn’t the second coming of the workplace comedy on the big screen, but it’s an admirable addition to the genre. The jokes are funny, and more of them land than don’t. This will hopefully earn Mindy Kaling proper attention as a feature writer, and, if there is a movie god, it will lead to more opportunities for Emma Thompson to be hilarious.
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