Close your eyes for a second and imagine a fantasy world — not one where prepubescent wizards fight noseless bald men or where various attractive people fight to sit on an Iron Throne, but an equally far-fetched world where a woman is the host of a network late-night television show. What a concept, right? Now open your eyes. Unfortunately, it is still 2019, and that revolutionary idea has not happened yet, but now we have the next best thing — Mindy Kaling’s new film, “Late Night”.
A “Devil Wears Prada” for the world of television production, “Late Night” follows the uptight Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson), an acclaimed comic and longtime host of a late-night television show suffering from declining ratings. When the new network president (Amy Ryan) informs Katherine that she is being replaced at the end of the season, Katherine hires Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling) in an attempt to diversify the show’s all-white, all-male writing staff and make herself relevant enough to save her job. Meanwhile, Molly must prove to everyone — and herself — that she is more than just the diversity hire.
Both Kaling and Thompson give excellent comedic performances. However, what makes “Late Night” stand out is Kaling’s astute script. From snappy one-liners to witty rapport, Kaling’s years of writing experience have culminated in a smart comedy that’s well deserving of its Sundance bidding record.
Kaling is no stranger to the writers room — she worked on the original writing staff of “The Office” and was a showrunner for her own series “The Mindy Project” — and her history shows in “Late Night.” As much as the film is about the dynamic between Katherine and Molly, it is also a heartfelt workplace dramedy tracking the highs and lows of being a television writer. The world of the film’s fictional writers room is detailed in a way that only someone with years of experience in one could create. Without glamorizing the job, Kaling writes a love letter to the high-risk, high-reward work of television comedy.
While the film constantly pokes fun at how homogeneous the television landscape is, it doesn’t really touch on the struggle women and other minorities actually face to even get the opportunities Molly does. Molly works at a chemical plant before landing her dream job writing for the show, literally making her unqualified for the job. Because of this, it seems that the other writers’ misgivings about Molly have some basis. Molly must assert her abilities as a writer as well as prove she is more than just a token, an unfair heft for the script to lay on her.
Even though the topic of workplace diversity could be handled better, Kaling deftly navigates the common tropes that often undermine lead female characters. Even though “Late Night” delves deeply into Katherine’s personal life with her former-comic husband suffering from Parkinson’s, the film never once feels the need to reinforce the idea that for a woman, having a successful professional life means having a terrible personal one (see: “The Devil Wears Prada,” “The Intern”). Katherine’s husband (John Lithgow, randomly enough) is fully supportive of Katherine’s career despite his declining one and is content playing the stay-at-home husband.
While there is a subtle romance that happens between Molly and fellow writer Tom (Reid Scott), a not-so-subtle B.J. Novak stand-in, the love story plot takes a backseat to Molly’s professional development and her relationship with Katherine.
Close your eyes again, and this time, imagine an entertaining buddy film about the late-night television world that just happens to star two female leads. Imagine that this film is so entertaining that it makes you forget for a while that this is all a fantastical world where a woman has a late-night hosting gig. Maybe after watching “Late Night,” some television executive out there will realize that putting women in late-night comedy wouldn’t be such a crazy idea.