Emma Thompson as the host of Tonight with Katherine Newbury in Late Night.
Mindy Kaling loves romcoms. This is clear if you’ve seen her show, or read her books, or watched her interviews, or followed her tweets.
No surprise, then, that the first movie she’s written follows the classic romcom formula, only applied to a passion for work rather than love.
Like so many beloved romcoms, Late Night takes place in a version of New York City that’s slightly better than the one that exists in our reality. In this universe, a woman has hosted her own late-night talk show since the 1990s. And in this universe, an aspiring comedy writer can get a job at that show simply by appearing at the right time and demonstrating the right amount of pluck.
As Katherine Newbury, Emma Thompson practically radiates brilliance and glamour. It’s easy to understand why Molly (played by Kaling) is so awed by her. But she’s also terrifying – basically a Miranda Priestly for comedy. Katherine is better than everyone and knows it, and she isn’t particularly shy about letting other people know it, too.
Earned though that superiority may be, it’s proven bad for ratings, and the threat of cancellation looms over Katherine’s head. Into that turbulent mix comes Molly, who has no experience but plenty of talent and moxie. Will she prove to be just the breath of fresh air that Katherine needs? Can Molly win over her skeptics with her spirit and determination? Will everyone live happily ever after?
The answers should be obvious if you’ve ever seen a movie before, but Late Night, which was not only written but directed by a woman (Nisha Ganatra), handles them with an eye toward the specifics of Molly and Katherine’s situation.
Molly is explicitly a diversity hire – she gets the job when Katherine decides to hire a woman to prove she doesn’t hate other women – and the film deals with both the opportunity that affords Molly (“The point is, you’re here,” Katherine tells her), and the resentment and doubt that it sows in her colleagues (“I wish I was a woman of color so I could get a job with zero qualifications,” grumbles one of several interchangeable white male writers).
Katherine, meanwhile, seems skittish from a career spent being the smartest woman in a room full of men. She’ll defend her decision to have “boring” women like Dianne Feinstein and Doris Kearns Goodwin on as guests, but roll her eyes at the tackiness of another woman starting a sentence with “as a woman.”
As Late Night goes on, however, most of the gender and racial dynamics at play are submerged into subtext, or fall by the wayside altogether. If you’re looking for a movie that wounds with its insight, that shines a new light on harsh realities, that exposes the horrors of a toxic industry, Late Night isn’t it.
More Legally Blonde than Support the Girls, Late Night is content to be a fluffy, formulaic crowdpleaser with a sweet and uplifting message, and only has so much interest in reckoning with the depressing, nigh-Sisyphean trials of being a woman, and especially a woman of color, in a white-male-dominated workplace.
For some, that’ll prove a disappointment. For me, that’s part of its charm. Like the romcoms it’s modeled after, Late Night offers an escape into a world with softer edges, brighter colors, and simpler solutions. Lord knows reality is tough enough already, and lest we forget, we’re reminded of it every day in the headlines. Sometimes, a simple treat like Late Night is exactly what I need.