It is no coincidence—but should send a pointed message—that the best comedy about late-night TV we’ve seen is directed and written by women, with two female leads, and about the only female host of a network late-night talk show. (She’s fictional, of course... as if there’s someone to actually base her on.)
Written by Mindy Kaling, directed by Nisha Ganatra, and starring Kaling and Emma Thompson as the aforementioned late-night trailblazer—a casting as spectacular as you’d suspect—Late Night premiered Friday at the Sundance Film Festival to an eager audience. Amazon bought it after an all-night bidding war for $13 million, the biggest sale of the festival so far and a timely statement about diversity in filmmaking and storytelling.
The comedy is rife with commentary about gender politics and sexism within the industry, which audiences not only expect, but maybe even crave from a film on this topic written by Mindy Kaling. But Late Night doesn’t hit you over the head with the messaging. It tickles you with it, resulting in a slick, crowd-pleasing film that is heartfelt and, more importantly, hilarious—but with the rare descriptor of “woke” as well, hopefully ushering in a new wave of mass-appealing comedy in which that idea not only stops eliciting an eye roll, but is even expected.
We meet Thompson’s Kathryn Newbury when she is winning the American Humor Award, 28 years after becoming the first female host of a network late-night talk show. She’s at the phase of her career when retrospectives and tributes are at their peaks, drowning out the reality that her relevance is at its lowest.
A woman in her fifties who has spent her career as not only the sole woman in a room, but in an entire industry, Kathryn has developed a thick skin and strong opinions. As freely as she wields them like weapons behind closed doors, she refuses to share them on her show—to her detriment against an evolving, younger audience and a changing television landscape in which only candor and viral sketches seem to thrive.
Capable of serving brutal tongue lashings with the bladed eloquence only Emma Thompson could deliver, Kathryn scoffs at an executive who begins sentences with “as a female…,” eviscerates a male writer who asks for a raise because he’s expecting a new child—blasting the double standard against women in that regard, and then likening the choice to procreate to a drug problem—and hasn’t been in her writers’ room for so long most of the writers have never met her.
She runs her talk show the way that she wants, angering a network head (Amy Ryan) by booking Doris Kearns Goodwin on a night when Jimmy Fallon has Robert Downey Jr. on bathing a sheepdog. Kathryn maintains that it’s all born from an expectation of excellence and a trust her viewers have in her intelligence, inspiring her to end each night’s show with the sign-off, “I hope I’ve earned the privilege of your time.”
When she’s informed that that privilege will no longer be hers and she is going to be replaced by a crass frat-boy comedian played by Ike Barinholtz, she realizes she has to fight for the show she’s built. A fight, though, doesn’t mean a change in personality.
She arrives in the writers’ room for the first time in a decade and numbers the staff instead of learning their names. She asks one writer how his baby is. That baby is now 27. When she asks where one writer she remembers is, she is informed that he died. In 2012.
More, despite her groundbreaking position in the industry, she has a reputation for hating women. She likes Mary Tyler Moore and Gilda Radner, she protests, but, as her producer points out, won’t renew a single female writer’s contract. It’s been so long since there’s been another woman in the office, the women’s restroom has been designated as the pooping bathroom. With her show in need of a jolt, Kathryn needs to hire a female writer. That’s where Mindy Kaling comes in.
A quality control specialist at a chemical plant, Kaling’s Molly Patel finagles an unlikely interview for the writer’s position after winning an essay-writing contest. Molly is the idea of “wide-eyed” manifested as a person. (At one point, Kathryn informs her that she has an earnestness that is just hard to be around.) Her positivity is relentless in the face of the world’s brutality; at one point, she delivers an affirmation on the street before going in for her interview, and a bag of trash is thrown in her face. Nevertheless, she persists.
She’s a researched student of Kathryn’s show and of comedy, but with no actual TV experience. That’s of no import, though, as she’s de facto hired because of Kathryn’s insistence on hiring a woman—and immediately. The only questions she’s asked are if she would consider herself “a litigious person” and if she would mind a work environment hopeless in its toxic masculinity. “I saw most of the writers,” she quips. “I’m not worried about masculinity.”
If Kathryn and Molly’s power dynamic is reminiscent of The Devil Wears Prada, we imagine that’s purposeful. At the very least, it’s entertaining. In fact, that’s the strongest—and maybe most difficult—aspect of Kaling’s script. It moves with a breezy ease because of how meticulously it hits every beat in that familiar arc. You know where it’s going at all times. The spice and the surprise comes in the patter of Kaling’s dialogue, and the thrilling bluntness with which it confronts the subject matter at hand.
The ways in which women are dismissed, made assumptions about, or, in Kathryn’s case, feared because of how they look and the roles they’re meant to fit are, at different times, validated and exploded. “I’m not a single mom, by the way. I just look like one and dress one,” Molly is forced to say at one point, while Kathryn reckons with being branded “Your Least Favorite Aunt” by comedy critics.
It should come as no shock that Molly proves herself invaluable to the show, or that Kathryn reveals hidden layers: When you’re considered a dragon lady, people don’t understand that there’s kindling that created the fire that you breathe. When this happens, it’s rewarding. Late Night can be cheesy, but it’s cheesy exactly when you want it to be. Cheese is delicious. People love cheese.
To that end, Late Night is far from perfect. The actual comedy, as in the jokes on the late-night show and in stand-up sets, is strangely unfunny. (It’s the dynamics between Kaling and her various foes—in addition to Thompson, writers played by Reid Scott, Hugh Dancy, Denis O’Hare, John Early, Max Casella, and Paul Walter Hauser—where the film’s humor lives.) Thinly explored romantic subplots with Kaling’s character are needlessly introduced, and the film takes on one more big industry “issue” that it can maybe handle when a reverse-gender #MeToo twist sets up the final act.
It’s that latter plot point that serves as the catalyst for the show’s biggest monologue, delivered expertly by Thompson, as well as its grand thesis when Kathryn speaks from the heart to her audience about sexism, double standards, and accountability. For some, Late Night’s handling of gender politics might seem far too utopian, this idea that bringing these complicated conversations to the forefront in such a direct, if glossy way could actually lead to the idealistic happily-ever-after depicted in the movie—or even just the idea that a 100-minute film could actually accomplish anything to combat institutionalized sexism.
But crafting such a utopian world, as fans of The Mindy Project know, is Kaling’s specialty. It’s a world where biases and stereotypes about race, gender, and privilege exist and are acknowledged, but it’s also one where those things can be overcome by perfectly scripted comebacks and searing monologues—not to mention a protagonist’s adorably grating gumption. This world, it turns out, is very fun to escape to, attractive in the sense that it doesn’t seem that far out of reach.
When a film is cute and fun, those things are sometimes looked at as detriments to its appeal or credibility, especially when the topic at hand is something as volatile and immediately concerning as the gender politics of Late Night. But it’s precisely that idea that has systemically created the culture that necessitates the movie in the first place.
Rest assured, then. Late Night certainly earns the privilege of your time.