Late Night. Directed by Nisha Ganatra. Starring Mindy Kaling and Emma Thompson. Rating: 8 (out of 10)
Late night TV host Katherine Newbury thrived in an era when Leno and Letterman fell, and is now a contemporary of Seth Meyers (who makes a cameo) and the new boys of late night.
It is fiction, of course, because a female late-night host is rarer than a female firefighter, infantry soldier and presidential hopeful all rolled into one. And Mindy Kaling, who wrote and stars in Late Night, has to imagine a slightly less sexist late-night working environment to even tell her #metoo-era story.
Kaling plays Molly Patel, who lands her dream job and joins the all-male, all-white writing team of Katherine Newbury’s (Emma Thompson) show. Eager to prove that she is more than a “minority hire” Molly gamely takes on her critics; she finds herself at loggerheads with a co-writer (Reid Scott, Veep) and engages in a hasty romance with another (Hugh Dancy).
Katherine is old-school, a bit of a snob, and openly disdainful of new forms of media. When the legendary host belittles a social-media influencer on air and the guest storms off her show in disgust, the moment goes viral and the tides turn against her.
The network boss (Amy Ryan) is itching to replace her with – what else? – a right-wing white guy. Katherine can still attract guests with some cachet, but the wit of her show has dulled over the years due in part to complacency in the writers’ room, general malaise, and Katherine’s distractedness while coping with her husband’s (John Lithgow) illness.
We can be sure of the veracity of the writers’-room banter thanks to Kaling’s background as a writer and producer (she was the first woman and person of colour to write for The Office). But the script also does the unexpected several times, avoiding cliché and presenting both women as equally flawed and vulnerable in their own way.
The criticism is carefully crafted as to not offend male ticket-buyers and the humour is pointed, but not scathing. The straight, white men in the film are portrayed as the willing beneficiaries of a flawed framework rather than the villainous architects of them: this is a comedy, after all.
In a career full of highs (the tear-wiping, blanket-smoothing scene in Love, Actually gets me every time), this may be among Thompson’s best. Thompson’s early background in standup and sketch comedy served her well for the comedy of her character, but there are touching, tender moments between the actor and Lithgow in their portrait of a long and successful marriage.
As a writer Kaling has much to say, and it’s all good. It’s a film about feminism, inclusivity, mentorship, reinvention. Such consideration is given to peripheral characters that we lament the restrictive time frame of a feature film; sometimes it feels that there is just too much here to be crammed into one movie. But that’s the only criticism, so filmmakers should run with it.
The last, important thematic takeaway from Late Night is an unapologetic love of television. “I love television,” Molly declares. It’s what Katherine has misplaced, it’s what Molly brings to the writers’ table, and it’s what many of us have lost in an age of streaming a million shows at once. Kaling reminds us of the unifying experience of watching a late-night program en masse and of dissecting the monologue at work the next day. Her sharp and funny Late Night is both a reverie of TV’s best age and a modest proposal on how to resurrect it.