As a veteran TV comedy writer on The Office (US) and her own The Mindy Project, who better than Mindy Kaling to script a comedy-drama about the pitfalls and privilege of the male-dominated media? Late Night, her feature-writing debut, is a smart piece of work that manages to weave notions of glass ceilings, internalised misogyny and the need for diversity through nearly every strand, without ever feeling preachy.
The film already imagines a moderately more progressive world than ours — among the roster of hit US talk shows is 'Tonight With (Emma Thompson's) Katherine Newbury' (in reality, women late-night hosts remain a rarity). But for all that Newbury is a seasoned pro with nearly 30 years in the business, her show has grown stale — she offers nothing different from her male competitors, strays away from personal politics and avoids anything boundary-pushing. As a result, her ratings are slipping and the network is threatening a new host in the shape of the seemingly affable but low-key sexist Daniel Tennant (Ike Barinholtz). Into all this comes aspiring comedy writer Molly Patel (Kaling), who can’t even get her foot in the door without being a literal competition winner. For Newbury, she’s a tokenistic diversity hire to reinvigorate her all-male writing staff, but Patel is determined to prove her merit, having finally been given an opportunity.
It’s a timely and potent set-up for a workplace comedy, and the greatest strength of Kaling’s screenplay is its centering of Katherine and Molly — two women working within the constraints of an inherently sexist work culture. Thompson is brilliantly acerbic, dialling up the boss-from-hell dynamic with a stack of withering glares. Kaling is her ideal foil — Molly is sweet and idealistic, her inexperience allowing her to think outside of the confines Newbury has found herself in over time. Their growing friendship brings fun twists on tropes usually reserved for chalk-and-cheese romcoms — especially a witty equivalent of the final-reel dash.
Elsewhere, a dramatic sub-plot involving the strained relationship between Newbury and her Parkinson’s-afflicted husband Walter (John Lithgow) is shot through with empathy and emotion, adding dimensions to both characters, but it nearly unbalances the film. Come the finale, it’s unclear whether Patel’s personal journey, the friendship between Patel and Newbury or Newbury’s relationship with her husband is the story’s true emotional core. While a romantic sub-plot for Patel is admirably sidelined — the more valuable relationship here is one of female friendship — its eventual presence feels unnecessary and underdeveloped.
Still, Late Night is a pivot to the big screen with purpose from Kaling, providing a steady stream of warm and witty gags, even if it lacks belly laughs. Hopefully its presence helps effect the sort of change that the film itself espouses, regarding who exactly gets to tell these stories.