When Mindy Kaling joined the writing staff of The Office in 2004, she was the first woman and the only minority. What would have been a rewarding but intimidating situation for anyone has clearly stuck with Kaling, as it serves as the inspiration for her first feature film script. Late Night, which examines the behind-the-scenes goings-on at a popular (though dwindling) talk show, stars Emma Thompson as long-time host Katherine Newbury. Kaling co-stars as Molly, the first woman and only minority to join the show’s writing staff.
An intelligent and multi-layered dram-com, Late Night certainly has fun poking the bear of the all-white-male late night landscape, but aside from just taking potshots at the easy target, it takes the narrative a step further and actually makes a well-thought-out, smart case for itself. And though it eventually falls prey to some of the very tropes it seems on a mission to avoid, it’s not enough to detract from Late Night’s overall success.
The movie opens with Newbury celebrating 6,000 episodes and 27 years as the only female host in last night television. When she’s accused of falling out of touch with her audience (particularly women), she decides to hire a female to join the boys-club writer’s room. Enter Molly Patel, a long-time Newbury fan who moonlights as a stand-up comic when she’s not working in quality control at a chemical plant. Days after Molly’s hire, however, the network president (Amy Ryan) reveals that sagging ratings and viewer apathy have forced her hand—Newbury’s current season will be her last.
The long-time host decides to fight the decision, though, confident that she can turn things around and generate an uptick in ratings, making it impossible to fire her. Molly, very much on the outside looking in, meanwhile, slowly begins to ingratiate herself with the rest of the writing staff before leading the charge to save Newbury’s job.
The shell of the plot is fairly standard, to be sure, but what Kaling does with both the script and her performance, however, is turn the film into something truly special. Subplots abound, and though some come off as half-baked, most are nifty little gems that would have wound up on the cutting room floor of other movies. Newbury’s doting husband Walter (John LIthgow), for example, is starting to show the symptoms of his Parkinson’s; it’s a heavy storyline that would have dragged down lesser fare, but here it just adds another smart layer on top of an already exquisite little treat.
Thompson eats up the role of Katherine Newbury like she’s coming off a month-long fast, throwing her all into it and doing some of her best work in years. Kaling, who also produced the film, matches Thompson stride for stride, crafting something truly memorable in the process. It’s quite conceivable that Late Night will get lost in the summer noise at the cineplex, including the loud sis-boom-bah of Thompson’s other vehicle, Men In Black: International, which also arrives this weekend. If, however, you’re looking for a smart, fun and wholly entertaining change of pace, Late Night fits the bill while at the same time further securing Kaling’s standing as outsider no more.Text