There’s a scene toward the end of the comedy Late Night in which Emma Thompson’s character, the hard-driving talk show host Katherine Newbury, climbs multiple flights of stairs in a Brooklyn walk-up in order to have a heart to heart with Molly, her newest writer. Out of nowhere – or perhaps out of the early 2000s – a cheery, vaguely inspirational pop song comes on the soundtrack as Katherine huffs and puffs up those stairs, stopping at one point to take off her shoes in order to aid her ascent. It’s one of a few cliché moments (also included is an obligatory montage, showing hard work resulting in success) that stand out for all the wrong reasons in what is otherwise a smart, funny, and fresh take on both feminism and cultural diversity in the work place.
Writer and co-star Mindy Kaling, who created and starred in the popular sitcom The Mindy Project after her stint as Kelly Kapoor on the American version of The Office, has made a warm and heartfelt feature film screenwriting debut with Late Night. Her script is the real strength of the movie. Director Nisha Ganatra’s aesthetic feels a bit stodgy. The aforementioned montage, along with other uninventive staging and direction, make Late Night feel more conventional than it really is.
Kaling’s story has her character, Molly, applying for a job in the writer’s room of her favorite late-night talk show, Tonight with Katherine Newbury. Molly works at a chemical plant, but her true passion is comedy. One of the best bits of the movie is Molly testing out her material on her coworkers at her day job over the plant’s intercom. Molly has come along at both the right and wrong time. Katherine’s boss has informed her that Tonight’s decade-long ratings decline means the network is dumping Katherine at the end of the season. In a desperate attempt to regain relevance and save her job, Katherine decides to shake up her all-white, all-male writing staff, so Molly gets hired.
Kaling’s script is full of unique observations about the obstacles that a so-called “diversity hire” faces. One of the best is that the (white) guy who lost out on the job to Molly was to be a legacy hire whose brother is a writer for the show. When she is confronted by the guy later at a party about the unfairness of the situation, she makes a pointed remark about the equal unfairness of nepotism.
The movie also subversively turns the group of writers into a mostly indistinguishable gaggle of white, male faces. There are a few who stand out, like Tom, who holds the renowned position (to him, at least) of writing each show’s opening monologue. There’s also Charlie, a potential love-interest for Molly who has a complicated history with Katherine. The rest just sort of all blend together.
A joke to that effect is made explicit during Katherine’s first meeting with the writers after finding out she is losing her job. She has been at the top of her profession for so long that she has never even met most of her writers. Since she can’t be bothered to learn their names, she simply assigns each one a number in order to keep them straight. Of course, she does the same to Molly (she’s number eight), who must prove she has what it takes to salvage Katherine’s career.
Kaling could have easily written a staring vehicle for herself, but instead she chose to share the spotlight in Late Night. She wrote the role of cold-as-ice comedy queen Katherine Newbury specifically for actor Emma Thompson. It was an inspired creative decision. Thompson turns in a career best performance in the movie. The character as written – and as brought to life by Thompson – contains multitudes. Katherine is an exacting perfectionist and a comedy legend and at the same time, a spiteful asshole. She loves her husband, Walter – played by an understated John Lithgow – who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, but that relationship is more complicated than it seems, as we find out in the last half of the film. There are several great moments of dialog in which Katherine expounds upon an artist’s propensity for self-loathing, and Thompson’s delivery makes them crushingly real.
Aside from both Kaling and Thompson teaming up to create such a fully realized, multi-faceted character in Katherine Newbury, Late Night is also notable for something else. Despite her recent ratings slide, Newbury has been the successful host of an American late-night talk show for decades. That’s something no woman has been given the opportunity to do back here in the real world. In fact, Thompson made just that observation on Stephen Colbert’s own late-night talk show while doing press for the film.
Kaling imagined a world where an Indian-American woman is given a shot in a comedy show’s writers’ room, which are still overwhelmingly dominated by white men. She also imagined one in which a woman was successful in that environment in front of the camera, too. These circumstances lead to a dénouement where inclusiveness and diversity flourish. That heartfelt vision, along with all the laughs and strong performances, make Late Night a satisfying and fun time at the movies.
Why it got 3.5 stars:
- Don’t confuse me for being dismissive when I describe Late Night as a great date night movie. It’s light and fun, but it has a few important things on its mind, too. Kaling and Thompson are wonderful. The direction is the only real disappointment.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- There’s a great blink-and-you’ll-miss-it joke that involves Katherine’s producer, Brad, introducing Molly to the rest of the writers. I think he’s trying to be inclusive, but really misses the mark when he tries to pronounce her name with what he thinks is an Indian accent. “Everyone, this is Mol-EE.” “That guy” character actor Denis O’Hare delivers the joke with great cringe-worthy timing.
- As I watched the movie, I thought of a through-line of successful female characters in comedy. Molly is the fresh-faced up-and-comer, Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon from 30 Rock is the veteran who still has to prove herself, and Katherine Newbury is something we’ve never quite seen before. She’s the old guard. The woman who has become an institution in comedy.
- The movie made me wonder how close to reality it is to actual late night talk shows. The host is always listed as a writer or head writer. Do they even mingle with their writers, or do they keep themselves sequestered from the lowly “non-talent?”
- The main reason Katherine’s show is failing in the ratings is because she likes to do important interviews with serious people. Molly has the idea that “going viral” will make her relevant again. Interviewing YouTube stars and doing viral bits is the strategy, and it works. “[The audience] wants Kevin Hart on a Slip ‘N Slide,” Katherine laments at one point. I side with Katherine’s initial point of view here, so I hate just a little bit that those around her are right.
Close encounters with people in movie theaters:
- The box office numbers have not been kind to Late Night, which is a shame. There were exactly two other people at the screening, besides Rach and myself. It made for the feeling of having a private screening all to ourselves, but I’d like to see Late Night be a financial success.