***1/2 out of ****
(for strong language throughout and some sexual references)
Released: June 7, 2019 limited; July 14 wide
Runtime: 102 minutes
Directed by: Nisha Ganatra
Starring: Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, Hugh Dancy, Reid Scot, Denis O’Hara, Max Casella, Paul Walter Hauser, John Early, Ike Barinholtz, Amy Ryan, John Lithgow
For anyone still holding onto the notion that women are inferior comedy writers to men, let Late Night end that antiquated nonsense once and for all.
Fueled by one of the best movie scripts of the year, in the kind of smart adult crowd-pleaser that studios have all-but-abandoned to their 1980s and 90s heyday, TV multi-hyphenate Mindy Kaling (The Office, The Mindy Project) stars in the film she also wrote. It’s one with a The Devil Hosts Late Night premise that ends up being more than just a conceptual rip-off or simply a showcase for Kaling and lead Emma Thompson.
Deceptively, Late Night evolves from a witty-if-light gentle satire to something unexpectedly smart and substantial, and immensely entertaining. Its themes, too, are a hopeful challenge to the current caustic spirit of late night comedy, suggesting that it’s not only diversity that’s needed but, more importantly, less cynicism. Less jadedness. Even in being political, do it sincerely and humbly, not dogmatically, and with honesty rather than pettiness. That’s what people want.
Fictionalizing the landscape of bedtime network talk shows while also affectionately indicting their historically white male dominated culture, Kaling knows this territory. She came up in a variation of it as a writer for The Office. She understands this world, its people, culture, quirks, and hypocrisies, but also its charms and mystique.
Late Night stars Thompson as Katherine Newbury, a legendary icon who’s hosted her own show for three decades. But now, with sinking ratings and the aura of irrelevance in a new media world, her job is suddenly on the line.
Enter Kaling’s Molly Patel, a chemical plant supervisor who takes a risk to pursue her dream of working for Newbury, her lifelong idol. Molly’s gamble, timed with Newbury’s downturn, leads to a stroke of “diversity hire” kismet as Molly becomes the first non-white, non-male, non-Ivy League nepotite to join Newbury’s staff.
It’s a convenient contrivance but also a forgivable one. Like Molly herself, once this story gets its foot in the proverbial door it earns its token entry with work so exceptional (and instincts so savvy) that it matches or exceeds its peers and contemporaries, ones that far too often are willing to settle for less or “just enough.”
One of the early shrewd decisions by Kaling is to not make Molly a strictly likeable person who’s unfairly put-upon. She is likeable, but in her first writers’ room meetings Molly is an abrasive figure. Kudos to say her for saying what needs to be said to the monolithic crew stuck in its rut, but she often says it in the wrong way. Her presence is both obnoxious and clueless, yet her ideas are necessary to the stagnant creative environment.
Conversely, while the guys have their share of blind misogyny, they’re not talentless hacks just begging for a collective comeuppance. There are hints at a budding romance, too, but Kaling uses this as a diversional cliché to springboard into richer material and relevant themes, including some #MeToo messaging that hasn’t been confronted like this elsewhere, all while keeping the laughs coming.
Emma Thompson is the force at the center of it all, and one we have as much sympathy for as frustration with (which is the sign of a great, compelling character). She abuses her team with casual cruelty, and is unsympathetically upfront about it. Yet the nature of being a woman in that business shoulders a lot of that blame, even as Newbury proves hypocritical as a female standard-bearer in the industry.
It’s the relationship with her husband where we see Katherine at her most human, with John Lithgow in a charming supporting turn that could’ve easily been edited out of the entire film until he becomes so inherently vital. It’s another wonderful layer in a movie filled with them.
Kaling’s script is classically near-perfect. It shows any budding writer how to follow a formula without being conventional (Kaling doesn’t, for example, give Molly a stock supporting bestie to vent her anxieties to and subsequently be affirmed by), and how to express a singular point of view through a reliable narrative structure.
Late Night also knows the difference between “funny” and “comedy”. Funny is being good with jokes. Comedy is more dimensional, organically finding humor in situations, people, relationships, and life. It doesn’t require one-liners to make you laugh, nor is it reliant on setup/punchline deliveries; rather, it possesses a knowing insight expressed through banter that’s clever, not cute.
This pure form of comedy also allows the film to shift easily into drama with depth and poignancy, in a way that isn’t cheap or maudlin but resonant and true. Kaling provides the film’s voice while director Nisha Ganatra sets its tone and heart, building toward a universal (even spiritual) truth that any resurrection requires a deep, contrite repentance.
Kaling’s style isn’t quite the same as Nora Ephron’s or Nancy Meyers’, but she clearly is their heir. Here’s to hoping that her talent, her gift, is not lost on modern audiences in the glut of our streaming age.