Updated: Feb 9, 2020
Late Night is a comedy with something more than jokes on its mind. It is the story of a British comedienne who is being pushed out of the talk show she has hosted for nearly three decades and the Indian-American woman who is hired as a writer on that show. It is a movie with something to say in regards to gender, workplace inequality, race and age, but in a smart and funny way, not a pushy or preachy one. It is well-written and nicely paced, with two good lead performances. This is a very enjoyable comedy about the challenges faced by these women (as well as many women like them). Even if its plot turns are not always believable, its emotions are.
The plot is refreshingly simple: Katherine Newbury’s talk show desperately needs new blood (especially a non-white-male voice) in the writer’s room. Molly worships Katherine and gets herself an interview for a writer’s job just as they are looking for someone exactly like her. The rest of the movie concerns the individual struggles they go through and how their experiences with each other change their outlook on their lives.
Late Night (97 minutes, minus the end credits) really relies on the performances of its stars. Emma Thompson is the stubborn, rude, opinionated, intelligent and determined Katherine. Mindy Kaling (who also produced and wrote the screenplay) is the kind, optimistic, charming and too honest Molly. Katherine says some pretty mean things, so Thompson’s job is to make her motives clear in a way that keeps her relatable without softening her. Molly can come off as a little overbearing to the people around her, though Kaling makes her lovable. She never becomes a generic comedy lead. Oddly, while their jokes were not quite as funny as I anticipated, the amount of heart they bring to their roles just about makes up for it.
It actually leans on its themes more than its humor to move things forward. Molly, in the minds of her new coworkers, is merely a diversity hire. She was brought in to fill a quota, not due to merit. While she disagrees with this assessment, she still feels a strong need to prove her value. Molly does only get hired because the show has no female writers. However, that does not mean she has no talent. Katherine is in a comparable position in that she is the rare female late-night talk show host. Despite her longevity, she feels she has to work at least twice as hard as her male counterparts to keep her spot. Katherine is looked at differently than her similarly aged competitors and Molly is seen as a token. This is serious subject matter you generally would not expect to find in a relatively light comedy.
The way the movie deals with these issues is its strength. The jokes come from the personalities of the characters, not from their situations. It has several really effective scenes. Yet it is not without its flaws. There is a subplot involving a potential love interest for Molly that falls completely flat and a few of the gags (mainly the ones coming from the other members of the writing staff) do not seem to fit the rest of the story’s tone. Also, with the exception of John Lithgow as Katherine’s devoted husband, the supporting characters have no depth. This is all about the protagonists. Kaling has created a movie where she knew precisely what she wanted to say. Late Night is crowd-pleasing as well as very insightful.
3¾ out of 5
Emma Thompson as Katherine Newbury
Mindy Kaling as Molly Patel
John Lithgow as Walter Lovell
Denis O’Hare as Brad
Hugh Dancy as Charlie Fain
Reid Scott as Tom Campbell
Amy Ryan as Caroline Morton
Ike Barinholtz as Daniel Tennant
Directed by Nisha Ganatra
Screenplay by Mindy Kaling