Mindy Kaling’s ‘Late Night’: a Fantasy that Shouldn’t Have to be a Fantasy
The zinger “I don’t think you think you hate women” could be the perfect alt-title to Nisha Ganatra and Mindy Kaling’s winning, woke, workplace comedy Late Night. That snappy bon mot comes early in the film, but it echoes throughout every scene of this delightfully smart, forgivably broad, and surprisingly incisive behind-the-scenes look at TV’s after-hours talk shows.
LATE NIGHT ★★★★(4/5 stars)
Directed by: Nisha Ganatra
Written by: Mindy Kaling
Starring: Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, Max Casella, Hugh Dancy, Dennis O’Hare
Running time: 102 min
A special brand of chronic, if not toxic, white-guy masculinity has defined these hosts-behind-a-desk chatfests for over half a century. Arsenio Hall, Joan Rivers, and Chelsea Handler came closest to defying the odds, but otherwise the Allen-Parr-Carson-Letterman-Conan-Fallon-Colbert-Kimmel-Corden white boys’ club has been stubbornly, strangely, shockingly durable.
That’s why the most radical aspect of Late Night lies in its very premise. Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) is not only a late-night host but is also celebrating her 20th anniversary on the job. Just seeing her in this film makes you realize just how weirdly, stupidly alien it is to watch a woman do something that men monopolize. Thompson has even joked on press tours that the movie is science fiction.
In this outdated niche of the TV entertainment world, some executives still think guys are funnier than gals. Or, at least, it’s always a safer bet to hire a guy over a gal. It’s ridiculous, and yet it persists, even when the host is a woman. And even when that woman has power over writer’s-room hires and still uses only men on her staff. That’s why Late Night is fundamentally about a self-perpetuating delusion with deeply-rooted systemic viewpoints. No one ever thinks they’re sexist, or racist, or privileged. But they settle for an ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it entropy. And they don’t want that to change, even when the world is changing around them. Yet everyone knows the awful truth: evolve or die.
Late Night is the sweetest angry film I’ve ever seen. Kaling clearly holds so much affection and admiration for all the talented men who have come before her, and yet she clearly revels in skewering their narrow-minded world. As Molly Patel, she’s a fluke diversity hire from a chemical plant owned by the network’s corporate parent company. It’s a screwball comedy distortion of her own real-life entré as a corporate-mandated diversity hire for the all-white, all-male writer’s staff of the long-running NBC hit The Office.
Kaling knows too well about workplace resentment from entrenched impress-me colleagues. And Late Night feasts on her firsthand experiences. “I wish I were a woman of color so I could get any job I want,” says one of Newbury’s staff writers. “It’s such a hostile environment for a white man. My brother couldn’t even get a job,” says another. Too extreme? If anything, too believable.
That said, this isn’t a score-settling screed from a sharp-tongued writer-actor, but a genuinely insightful look at an industry she clearly reveres. The plot, in a nutshell: Katherine’s venerated irreverence has turned into a low-rated guarantee of cancellation unless she can somehow reinvent herself. In an empty gesture towards innovation, she hires Molly. The reality, though, is that Katherine doesn’t really want innovation and Molly sucks as a writer.
As in all the best comedy, fear truly fuels the characters in Late Night. Just as in life, everyone in the film wants to be relevant, whether they’re a middle-aged celebrity, a young South Asian woman, or a cocky white guy with an Ivy-League diploma. The only way out is to humbly and honestly find humor in their own flawed lives. That’s a too-neat solution to a minority-centered movie that addresses Big Issues about race and gender. But it’s also inspirational. And universal.