Late Night may be, on the surface, a conventional workplace comedy, one that bears more than a passing resemblance to The Devil Wears Prada, David Frankel’s and Aline Brosh McKenna’s biting satire of the fashion and publishing industries. But the Mindy Kaling-scripted and Nisha Ganatra-directed film has a lot on its mind: tokenism, quota hiring, white privilege, identity, authenticity, rivalry among women who make it to the top, etc.. And even though what comes out is a very tasty treat, you wished that at some point they could have stopped, taken a deep breath, and considered any of these concerns with more depth. Yet, it all comes together beautifully, thanks to Kaling’s fine ear for dialogue, nuance and character; a solid cast; and Ganatra’s deft, sympathetic touch. Like Long Shot, —the Charlize Theron and Seth Rogen romantic political comedy that deserved a larger audience than it got when it opened a month ago— Late Night isa comedy of the moment, one that addresses the times we live in, and one that revives this critic’s faith in the roles comedies can still play in holding a mirror to the world we live in without resorting to flatulence jokes or mocking the disabled or the overweight.
Late Night asks us to buy into the idea that not only can a woman host her own late-night television talk show for more than a decade, but that this is happening right now. And we willingly buy into the idea for two reasons: first because, why the hell not? It should have happened a long time ago. If Oprah and Ellen were successful with their daytime talk shows, why can’t women be equally successful at night time? Second, because that woman is played by Emma Thompson, whose versatility as an actress we take for granted as we have Theron’s and Meryl Streep’s. Thompson plays Katherine Newbury, winner of countless Emmys, who has interviewed countless powerful women on her late-night show…and who has also scared away countless women writers, producers and employees with her imperious character. Her all-male, all-white writing staff has been delivering the same stale jokes and routines for God knows how long. Her ratings are plummeting and her social media presence is virtually non-existent. To make matters worse, top network executive Caroline Morton (Amy Ryan) is planning on replacing her with a white, young, male and misogynist stand-up comedian. Like Katherine, Caroline will be damned if she loses all she fought for and if that means “retiring” an equally talented woman and compromising her values for the sake of ratings, so be it.
Pushed into hiring a woman writer to show that she doesn’t hate women, her producer hires Molly Patel (Kaling) on the spot, a chemical plant worker and amateur stand-up comedian on the side, who finds out about the open position in one of the most ludicrously funny moments of the film. Resented by her colleagues (“It’s a hostile environment to be an educated white male,” remarks one of them), Molly finds herself in the same position many men and women of color find themselves in under similar circumstances: she has to work twice as hard to probe to her white colleagues and boss, that she is worthy of being there, of having a seat at the table. It helps little that Katherine addresses her writers —whom she has never met— by numbers and goes full bipolar on Molly, treating her at times with respect and admiration and at others with contempt.
But Katherine is not a one-dimensional, monomaniacal harridan. Kaling has created a fully three-dimensional character, one full of doubts, insecurities and even fear as well as ambition, tenacity and strength. Katherine finds comfort at home with her husband Walter (John Lithgow, delivering a wonderfully nuanced and gentle performance), a former musician suffering from the first stages of Parkinson’s. Kaling, who wrote the script with Thompson in mind for the role, gives the British actress many notes to play with and Thompson does so majestically. Yes, her putdowns are hilarious. But I was as captivated as much by her scenes with Lithgow and by those brief moments when Katherine lets her guard down to show the humanity hiding behind this impenetrable shield, as I was by her biting, sarcastic remarks.
Katherine’s young writing staff might be social media savvy but they haven’t had the courage to introduce their boss to this brave new world. It is up to Molly to do so. One of the many smart moves Kaling makes is to show how Molly applies her experience as an efficiency technician to her new job by not only bringing an outsider’s perspective to the show but a customer-oriented one. Kaling also endows Molly with a charming earnestness, but she is never naïve. She still has her feet firmly planted in the real world, no matter how much that world may hurt her sensibility and feelings.
While at times I wished Long Shot had wielded a sharper knife in its treatment of the compromises women have to make in the world of politics, I had no such issues with Late Night even when, at times, it seems to be biting off more than it can chew. Yet, because of Kaling’s unique voice and because she brings her own perspective as a writer for The Office and her experience as a creator, producer writer and star of her own show to the table, Late Night’s critique is more often than not on target. The writers’ room and the behind and front of camera scenes possess the sting of someone who has survived similar scenarios. Kaling also achieves a beautiful balance between the hilarious and the endearing, the sharply satirical and the moving, handling all these shifts with panache. Her vision in the final scenes may be a tad utopic and almost wish-fulfilling for some. But, for me, they are a glimpse of what could have been…and could still be.