Directed by: Nisha Ganatra
Written by: Mindy Kaling
Starring: Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, Max Casella, Hugh Dancy, John Lithgow, Dennis O’Hare
The landscape of late night television in 2019 is very white and very male. From Jimmy Fallon to James Corden, Stephen Cobert, Seth Myers, John Oliver, and Conan O’Brien. For their different approaches to comedy, they all have those same defining traits. One has to wonder what a world with a different type of host would look like and this film provides that opportunity with some pointed comedy about the entertainment industry.
As an established legend through her acclaimed late night talk show, Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) has seen some decline in her ratings and overall popularity. She coasts along until her network has a new president that wants to freshen up the production, which prompts Katherine to make what she calls a diversity hire with Molly (Mindy Kaling). While being inexperienced, Molly provides a fresh new lens the show has desperately needed.
When hearing about the concept of this film, I quickly became very excited about the possibilities we had in store especially with the brilliant comedic mind of Mindy Kaling penning the script for the feature. With its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, Late Night arrived onto the scene with rave reviews and setting a record for Amazon’s purchase of the film’s rights. Once it landed in theaters it made little to no traction and lost all the steam it had garnered from Utah. Seeing it later with no conception of how this film would land for me, I can gladly say that it was a complete delight across the board from its acting, direction, and writing.
Emma Thompson is one of those treasures that we know always puts in excellent work but sometimes we forget her greatness and gladly this film rightfully gave her the spotlight she deserves. She gives such a compassionate performance of someone struggling to survive in an industry ready to dispose of her. Her character, Katherine, wields a sort of unflinching integrity that does not succumb to network demands and it makes her so compelling. She refuses to do any comedy that she views is beneath her and instead focuses on guests that advance the intelligence of her audience. While it might not play the same way it did during her rise, she refuses to consider any alternatives.
The success of this film lies in the hands of Mindy Kaling with how she creates this world that seems almost like a fantasy but reminds us of the crushing realities of the current landscape in late-night entertainment. While Katherine shows the progress of a woman leading a prominent talk show, when the curtain gets pulled back, it reveals that she has an all-male and white writing crew. The injection of Kaling’s character, Molly, shows the hurdles a woman, especially of color, needs to jump over to get the same level of respect of her more privileged colleagues. It’s incisive in that regard but Kaling has so much going on in her mind for this story. Not only does the story comment on the lack of diversity and inclusion in writing rooms, but also feminism through the eyes of Katherine and how she treats other women.
Katherine has lived more life than most of her guests and has experienced the world through a different lens than women living through the most current wave of feminism. Just to be clear, I am no expert in defining what feminism means to women, I am only making an observation of the dynamics Kaling plays into with Katherine’s interaction with other female characters. One specific example highlights this belief where Katherine finally agrees to have a rising celebrity on her show and while it does not go well, it provides insight as to the type of women that she respects. It serves as one of the points of growth of her character. Not the strongest point of the film, if anything it’s a bit underwritten, but I appreciate Kaling willing to take her characters in those directions.
As mentioned before, this film comes together to be a pure delight because of the chemistry Kaling and Thompson have in their respective roles. They clash and they complement each other in a story that forces each of them to change the way they look at their careers and how to succeed in a field that doesn’t cater to them. The film’s jokes are smart and it has something to say about a world Kaling has come to know. I would definitely recommend this as it breezes by and tells a well-structured story.