Late Night Review: Mindy Kaling Manages to Make a Classic Comedy Out of Exceptionally Modern Problems
Mindy Kaling tackles a lot of big ideas in Late Night, from white male privilege to tokenization to sexual misconduct and abuses of power. What’s really impressive is that the movie does all that while still maintaining the tone of a light summer comedy.
In Late Night, the comedy landscape is just as white and male as it is in real life, save for Katherine Newbury, the first and only woman to host a late-night comedy show. Newbury built a career on personal, political comedy but gave up fighting to stay relevant more than a decade ago. Now, after 27 years on the air, she’s stuck between her snobbery of only wanting to book important guests and her fear of rocking the boat with anything resembling edginess.
Instead, Katherine runs the most middle-of-the-road, inoffensive show possible. She’s as apolitical as Jimmy Fallon, but without any cute bits. When she’s informed of her impending replacement, and when she’s confronted with her own irrelevance, the most she can manage is to insist a woman—any woman—be added to her writer’s room.
So often, when a woman or a person of color manages to infiltrate a white male-dominated industry, they’re hit with accusations of “forced diversity.” But in this case, those are actually Molly’s circumstances. She is a straight-up “diversity hire” and as such, she’s underestimated by everyone else who got their job the regular way—through good old fashioned nepotism.
Of course, Molly’s tokenization in no way reflects her talent. Sure, she has no idea how a writer’s room or a late night comedy show actually work—the sorts of things everyone else learned in their Ivy League boys’ clubs. But in addition to being genuinely funny, her outsider perspective is essential to making Newbury and her show relevant again.
Katherine’s longtime catchphrase is “I hope I’ve earned the privilege of your time” but she stopped thinking about what that means years ago, stopped paying attention to the word earned. In fact, Molly is pretty much the only person in the movie who is willing and eager to earn the privilege of the opportunities in front of her. Everyone else is coasting and has convinced themselves that they’re fine with that.
So Katherine and Molly must help each other grow and achieve their dreams and yes, there’s a formulaic simplicity there, but that’s not always a bad thing.
Comparisons between Late Night and The Devil Wears Prada are inevitable. Both are essentially romcoms where work takes the place of the lead’s romantic interest. Both center around a demanding, borderline abusive, impossibly chic older female mentor. But Mindy Kaling has long made her love of romcoms known and she’s proven that she knows the difference between derivative and homage. So she doesn’t shy away from these comparisons. (In fact, I’m about 70% sure that Newbury’s townhouse is the same location used as Miranda Priestly’s.) After all, there’s no shortage of male-driven comedies centered on career aspirations and father figure issues. Women are allowed to have two vaguely similar movies made more than 10 years apart.
Late Night has a lot going for it. Its greatest asset is Emma Thompson, who is just absolutely perfect here. But Kaling’s script is also sharp as hell. In a movie about the comedy industry, it’s important for the characters, not just the actors cast, to actually be funny, and they definitely are. But the movie as a whole never rises to being more than the sum of its parts. For a movie that follows a romcom formula, the romantic subplots—both Molly’s as well as Katherine’s relationship with her husband (John Lithgow), who suffers from Parkinson’s disease—feel superfluous. And while the comedy lands, the film’s dramatic moments aren’t nearly as consistent. Nisha Ganatra’s direction puts Kaling’s writing front and center, but doesn’t get the whole thing to fully gel cinematically.
For a movie that tackles such big ideas, Late Night ends up feeling pretty lightweight. Still, it’s a super enjoyable watch. Thompson is masterful and she and Kaling have great chemistry. The supporting cast is largely underused but still stellar. (Hugh Dancy deserved so much better.) It may not become a classic on the level of The Devil Wears Prada but it doesn’t need to because, again, we get to have both.
(image: Amazon Studios)
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