Late Night is one of those films that seems tailor made for everyone in it, and not just because Mindy Kaling writes, produces, and stars. Emma Thompson also seems like she was born to play the brilliant, talented, prickly late night talk show host Katherine Newbury.
Kaling may be our heroine, but we meet with Newbury first as she’s backstage preparing to accept an award for her achievements, of which there are many. Late Night wants us to be aware of Katherine’s achievements first and foremost, quickly establishing her as a trailblazer who’s attained the kind of success even many women today have yet to accomplish. There’s a reason Katherine’s long-running talk show is fictional beyond giving Late Night more creative flexibility. Just this year it was announced that NBC will have the first female late night talk show host in 30 YEARS. 30.
So the fact that a Katherine could even exist is a kind of dream in itself, but all is not well. Everyone but her seems are just how much and how long she’s been resting on her laurels, but she’s forced to face facts when she’s informed that her current season will be her last. As if that weren’t enough, Katherine is also accused of being a woman who hates women, and her writing staff, which consists solely of white men, doesn’t disprove this. On a whim, she hires Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling), an earnest writer with no experience and an eagerness to prove herself.
Kaling has long since established she has the comedic chops and the writing skills to pull this off, but what is truly refreshing is just how much Late Night is aware of just how a show like this comes together, and how it doesn’t. Much of the writing staff has never even been to the stage or even met Katherine, and they’re openly sexist about Kaling’s presence. Discussion of privilege would be hard to avoid even if the film were inclined to play it safer, and Kaling is able to incorporate them into Late Night with the kind of skillful hilarity that looks effortless, from a new segment on Katherine’s show entitled “White Savior” to one writer saying wistfully, “I wish I were a woman of color so I can get any job I want.”
Molly is also clearly determined to take no shit from the men around her about her status. When any of them criticize her for being a diversity hire or are condescending in general, Molly fires back with no apologies. When she does take things to heart, it’s when Katherine dresses her down like she does everyone, and she also has no apologies for her lack of niceties. But then, nor do her writers, one of whom outright tells Katherine, “We’re not here because you’re nice. We’re here because you’re good.” And when Katherine does hit a low point, she’s held accountable enough to explain, but not apologize.
While Late Night was always going to be something of a fantasy for career-oriented women. It’s not just the casual acceptance and depth of the female characters, who are allowed to be imperfect and ambitious (!) in myriad ways. It’s not how it becomes a platonic love story between Molly and her reluctant mentor and inspiration Katherine. No, the real wish fulfillment is how many of the men also grow and change. In Late Night, being liked isn’t the goal, being respected is, even if likability must remain a key ingredient for Katherine’s success as a performer and host.
The only missteps are when the movie tries to make Molly a strange mixture of inexperienced and Katherine superfan. Molly’s only real experience writing jokes are her announcements to her co-workers at the chemical plant where she works right before landing the job at Katherine’s show, yet she also knows how to do actual standup. She has a vast comedic knowledge, especially about Katherine’s long career, yet she knows practically nothing about how her show is actually run. It’s occasionally awkward, but thanks to Kaling it’s always enjoyable, even when it’s not exactly believable.