Actress and screenwriter Mindy Kaling collaborates with LGBTI director Nisha Ganatra in Late Night, about a New York talk show. The show’s host is Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson), a trailblazing woman. The movie first portrays her graciously making a speech after accepting a Mark Twain Prize. She gets the award for being the only female late night talk show host, doing so for decades. That should mean that everything’s going well for the show, but alas, her ratings are slipping.
Late Night‘s key asset is Thompson, playing a captain of her sinking ship of a show. This is her third leading role in this decade, which is a cinematic crime and that’s all I say. Anyway, she negotiates Katherine’s misanthropy well. There’s a scene early on in the film where one of her staff writers asks her for a raise. His reason for asking is because of his newborn baby, and she makes Katherine’s reaction believable.
Katherine’s reaction, by the way, is that he’s using his baby to advance himself as a man in the workplace. She then fires him. This is where Late Night becomes a complicated look at women in the workplace. She keeps her mostly staff down, but that ex-staff writer brings up the fact that there are no women in her writer’s room. The only thing worse than commanding a failing show is that other people will see that she’s a woman who actually hates women.
This is where Kaling comes in. She plays Molly Patel, a secondary role but Kaling writes with such complexity. She gives Molly, a chemical plant worker, the gumption to gun for the ex-writing staffer’s job. There’s also a certain attention to at least some of the details here, especially with what Molly does to even get that fateful job interview. And that creativity comes in handy in depicting both the roller coaster ride of both Katherine and Molly’s positions within the show.
Kaling also gives herself, through Molly, the first real jolt of a punchline. When Katherine’s assistant Brad (Denis O’Hare) asks her whether or not the masculine air in the writer’s room worries her, she replies with “I saw the writer’s room, masculinity doesn’t worry me”. The rest of the punchlines mostly fall in line with Molly clapping back at the other staff writers. I’ve suffered through clap back comedy before but the ones here are successful.
We can, however, find the flaws here if we look at the bigger picture. The ratings decline that Katherine’s show apparently has been happening for a decade. But the show is only in danger because of a new network CEO, Caroline Morton (Amy Ryan). Apparently none of the six previous network CEOs decided to do something about a product that isn’t as successful as it was before. A lot of the things here would have happened sooner.
The same goes for a plot point Katherine’s political reawakening. Kaling’s script justifies this delayed reawakening by showing that Katherine censors herself, a tendency that most marginalized people have. To be fair, I don’t know when Kaling wrote this script, but even then, it’s hard to imagine a time when political comedy wasn’t the norm. Katherine is finally taking stabs against Republicans which is something that Jay Leno did when he was as boring as Katherine supposedly is.
But most people are willing to overlook those plot holes just because of its lead actresses. Kaling wrote Katherine for Emma Thompson, but it’s also exact opposite of what the actress is like in real life. Katherine can barely hide her contempt while hosting a dinner party while Thompson is the perfect dinner party guest. There’s also a self awareness in Kaling’s part as she plays someone with grating earnestness. There’s a delightful thing about seeing those opposites together.