Between Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, and the promise of late-night-TV laughter, Late Night seemed like a must-see movie for me. Thompson plays Katherine Newbury, long-time host of a late-night show which has been on the decline for years. Kaling plays Molly Patel, who is hired onto Katherine’s writing staff because she’s female rather than on account of her skill or experience in writing comedy.
Molly’s presence happens to bolster Katherine’s reputation at a crucial moment; however, Katherine is not able to shift gears on the show in quite the way she needs to, at least at first. Having made a niche for herself as an intelligent woman who demands excellence in herself, her monologues, and her show’s guests, she struggles to be more accessible without scorning her guests or audience: she spurns the concept of solely interviewing attractive celebrities, or capitalizing on the virality of cute animals on social media.
(N.B. that this sort of thing is my sole experience with late night television. I am one of those who only bothers with Colbert, Corden, Fallon, Kimmel, Meyers, et al. once they’ve already been shared on my news feeds multiple times, generally alongside an MCU actor, Justin Timberlake, or clouded leopard cubs.)
As part of her efforts on the writing team, Molly re-watches Katherine’s old shows – partly from real appreciation, partly to gauge her rhythm, her strengths, and what worked on the old shows that stopped working since. She notes one sketch she’d connected with at a much younger age: Katherine’s take on life with depression, which made it seem okay that she, Molly, was experiencing similar feelings.
This Brene Brown approach of authenticity-via-vulnerability becomes one of Katherine’s methods for re-engaging her audience: to discuss her real self, even when that means addressing a scandal from years past, when Katherine’s husband was first diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. That authenticity (recognized and bolstered by Molly) wins both Katherine and Molly their continued employment.
Like Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, I think Late Night missed its chance to be tighter, snappier, and funnier. Surely a room with so many comedic writers should be buzzing and zinging with jokes and one-liners, even if they ultimately get cut from Katherine’s monologues. One of the funniest moments, for my money, was Molly quoting Yeats as she looks at the door to her new workplace (Tread softly, because you tread on my dreams), before the sad-trombone moment of getting hit by someone’s bag of fast food trash.
It’s still an amusing film overall, poking lots of little fingers at while male privilege and those who are out-of-touch with current events. Katherine makes a point to a reporter partway through that comedy is a rare meritocracy – that funny people can succeed as comedians, no matter where they come from. Given this claim, I don’t think we ever get any real unpacking of why she spent so long working solely with white men, buuut she stops doing that: the movie ends with Molly having ushered in a slew of new hires, many of them people of color and several of them female (but without having displaced the white male faces we recognize from before). Presumably this more-diverse writing staff has more avenues to appeal to and entertain a wider variety of people; certainly it’s based on Mindy Kaling’s own experience with The Office.
Though it could have had more concentrated hilarity, Late Night was a worthwhile watch for me due to Emma Thompson (cold-hearted boss to bemused Boomer to lonesome Emmy winner to playful entertainer to penitent wife) and Mindy Kaling (earnestly insistent as ever on clinging to one’s seat at the table, speaking one’s mind, and learning from past mistakes). Let me know if it earns the honor of your time.