Review: ‘Late Night’, Mindy Kaling And Emma Thompson Are Ratings Gold

NOTE: This is a reprint of my review from the Sundance Film Festival.*

In Mindy Kaling’s crowd-pleasing and timely comedy, Late Night, the multi-talented actress stars as a regular woman who lands her big break as a writer on a late night talk show. While directed by Nisha Ganatra, who was here at Sundance years ago for the critically-acclaimed Chutney Popcorn, this film is undeniably, unabashedly Kaling’s, who also makes her screenwriting debut here. And in her first salvo out of the gate, she’s tackling issues of diversity, inclusion, elitism, and ageism in Hollywood in a glossy update of the Devil Wears Prada model.

Late Night won’t appeal to anybody who is easily triggered at the idea of a woman, much less a brown one (*gasp*), excelling in territory typically owned by straight white males. And it’s a lesson Kaling puts right out there on front street: the lead talk show host is Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson), who has held on to the late night throne for nearly three decades. The late-night arena is still considered a man’s world, even today with a few notable exceptions, and Kaling casts a spotlight on the reality of what that someone like Katherine would have to contend with in today’s world. Here’s a hint: that shit ain’t easy.

Katherine’s been coasting along for years, content in her success even as the show’s ratings slide. Notoriously quick to fire, stodgy and set in her ways, Katherine has taken her show for granted, and now the chickens are coming home to roost. With the network looking to freshen things up with a new host (Ike Barinholtz as the classically sophomoric standup), Katherine is looking to make big changes. Her team of writers looks like Trump’s Cabinet; mostly privileged white males who write safe for fear of rocking the boat and earning Katherine’s quick dismissal. These dudes are so interchangeable Katherine doesn’t even know their names; the rare occasion when she meets them they all are given numbers. Even with a crew filled with pinpoint supporting players like Reid Scott, Max Casella, John Early, and Hugh Dancy, they all sorta meld together, which is exactly the point Kaling wants to make.  The place needs a shakeup, so when Katherine screams “Just hire a woman!” over the phone to her longtime assistant (Denis O’Hare), he literally hires the first one who walks in for the interview. That would be Kaling as former factory worker Molly Patel, a go-getter whose adoration of Katherine would be charming if Katherine didn’t hate it so. Needless to say, the other writers aren’t too pleased. At the very least it means they can’t keep using the women’s bathroom anymore, although they do.

Kaling doesn’t instantly set Molly up as the show’s savior; in fact, the entire point of the movie is that diversity simply isn’t enough. You also have to be damned good. Molly is, like so many of Kaling’s past characters, irritatingly nice and earnest. But she’s also someone who walks in with a ton of criticisms about the show, and no real answers to solve them. In a brilliant exchange with Casella’s character, a longtime writer whose best friend Molly replaced, he tells the sobbing newcomer “to do what writers do: write.”  Molly’s diversity may have gotten her in the door, but it doesn’t mean a damn thing if she doesn’t write something funny.

And write Molly does, but turning around a sinking ship of a TV show isn’t all about the best monologue jokes. Katherine has to change, as well.  To reach a new, younger audience, Katherine has to change with the times and learn to reveal herself to the world. Some attempts to reach a younger demo go wildly off the rails; a YouTube personality with an inane show followed by millions humiliates Katherine so bad it goes viral. But there are lessons learned, Kaling makes biting observations about the late night landscape (Jimmy Fallon gets hit pretty hard at one point, and Seth Myers makes a funny cameo) that feel right on point.

A belated attempt to comment on the #MeToo movement doesn’t work as well, and feels oddly out-of-place when Katherine’s entire writers’ room is a sexual harassment suit waiting to happen. Even when Molly is hired she’s first asked “Are you especially litigious?” for fear of just that very thing.  However, it does allow for Thompson to deliver some of the film’s most emotional moments, shared between her and John Lithgow as her ailing husband.  A romantic subplot involving Molly and a randy co-worker also amounts to little but Kaling is at her best when situations are the most awkward.

While nobody would call Kaling a diversity hire at this point in her career, she doesn’t waste her first time writing for the big screen, either. Late Night says something meaningful in a way that is both funny and relatable. If it were an actual late night talk show, Late Night would be ratings gold.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5