Although Mindy Kaling wrote and starred in “Late Night,” her greatest contribution may have been giving Emma Thompson such a fun and different role. Thompson plays Katherine Newbury, a comedy legend in danger of losing her long-held late night television slot, and Kaling plays Molly Patel, an eager, inexperienced writer who is given a chance to inject relevance into her idol’s image when she lands her dream job in the writers’ room.
With her sharp suits and even sharper tongue, Thompson’s character is a far cry from her many dignified roles in tasteful period pieces, and it’s thrilling to see a woman character like this. As Katherine, the only female late night comedy host, we see her dealing with sexism by ignoring it, or even participating in it, primarily by keeping a writers’ room comprised entirely of white males. When she gets called out for this fact, she makes her trusted right-hand man (Denis O’ Hare) hire the first woman he can. Of course that woman is Molly (Kaling), a chemist from Philadelphia shooting for her dream job in comedy.
The film has a lot to say that is probably from Kaling’s first-hand experience about being a minority, being a “token” minority specifically, and who gets what opportunities. She goes against a boys’ club of guys who all know each other and help each other get jobs, but, of course, she gets her job for a reason other than relevant experience. She hashes out a lot of these issues with the head writer (Reid Scott from “Veep”), who landed his job through nepotism. In the end, they both have to work much harder — regardless of the oath that brought them there — to try to boost their show’s ratings.
Lest these social issues make the movie seem like a soapbox situation, let me assure you that it’s mostly just fun. On top of whatever is going on with the plot or the message, there’s the ongoing interest of watching them make the TV show. It’s just an exciting setting, and fun to watch behind the scenes.
The greatest attraction of the film, by far, is Thompson herself. The movie is about her show and the movie itself is about her. She snaps, crackles and pops with intelligence and rueful, hard-earned wisdom, and she does so in an astounding array of marvelous blazers. Part of the point of the film is that it shouldn’t matter if she is a woman or not, just like it shouldn’t matter if Molly is Indian or not, but it does, and as such it is extra exciting to watch Thompson command the screen in a way that is more traditionally masculine.
For decades I have watched, rapt, as Thompson portrays women from hundreds of years ago agonizing over whether she will get married or not, and, while she certainly brought wit and warmth to those roles, and often wrote them herself, I loved seeing her in something like this. And if you were wondering, to rate “Late Night” among movies with almost the same title: it’s as good or better than “Date Night,” but not as good as “Game Night.”
There are no easy answers to the questions posed by “Late Night,” and, if anything, the answers the movie does provide are sometimes too on the nose, too pat. Nevertheless, just exploring this world with these characters is fun and refreshing, even if the film was a little short and wrapped up a bit too simply. They had time to explore these issues further, and the movie might have benefitted from more complications or just more complexity. However, when “Late Night” is not trying to please everyone, or to be super likeable, it is a worthwhile and noteworthy little adventure into the rarified but still imperfect world of late night comedy. It’s worth noting that while the fictional Katherine is burdened by being the only late night network comedy host, in the real world, there aren’t any.
“Late Night” is currently available to rent.
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