As a woman of color in America–squeezing your big toe into any door, no matter what career field you may be striving for, can prove to be a harrowing experience. Not only are you often overlooked, but when you do manage to get a seat at the table, your presence is questioned at every turn. Using her own experiences (with a bit of embellishment)–Mindy Kaling’s Late Night puts women at the center of the male-dominated late-night talk show sector. Written by Kaling and helmed by Nisha Ganatra, the film follows Molly Patel (Kaling) a former chemical plant efficiency specialist who has always wanted to break into the comedic world. Luckily for her, Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson), the only woman in the late night game is looking to revamp her show.
With plummeting ratings, a disdain for “low brow” comedy, and a writer’s room full of 30-ish something white boys, Katherine realizes she has do something drastic to save the show that has been her life’s blood for nearly three decades. When Molly finds herself in an unlikely meeting with Katherine’s producer (Denis O’Hare), she’s hired on the spot. With occurs next is a masterclass in 21st-century comedy that places the experiences of women, and women of color in particular in predominantly white and male spaces at the forefront of cinema.
Molly (a more earnest version of Kaling’s Mindy Project character) is over-the-moon to be stepping into her new role. Gleeful, bright-eyed, and armed with cupcakes on her very first day–Molly runs into a brick wall. She soon learns that Katherine, a woman she’s idolized for most of her life can’t even be bothered to learn the names of her writers, choosing to address them with numbers instead. Her co-workers aren’t much better. In addition to using the women’s restroom for their daily poos, they also feel threatened by Molly’s presence and thwart her efforts for change at every turn.
As most women know, and what Molly discovers is that even with an elaborate plot to get in the door in the first place, there’s still a struggle for visibility once you’re in the room, especially when imposter syndrome and microaggressions are continually rearing their ugly heads.
In addition to Molly, Thompson’s Katherine is compelling to watch. She’s domineering and curt–though not in the mean girl-type way that Meryl Streep portrayed in The Devil Wears Prada. Instead, Katherine is privileged, entitled, and incredibly selfish. She’s existed almost like an island for years, refusing to extend her hand towards the women who have been desperate for similar opportunities since she arrived in her field.
However, once she becomes a victim of ageism and a vengeful network president, Caroline Morton (Amy Ryan)– Katherine realizes she has to look outside of herself and even beyond the advice of her beloved husband–Walter (John Lithgow), an ailing law school professor if she has any hope of saving her life’s work. Fortunately (or rather unfortunately as Katherine would probably say)– Molly might be her saving grace. She’s full of quirky ideas including an interview with a popular YouTuber whose claim to fame is sniffing her dog’s smelly butt and being vulnerable in the public eye.
Late Night could have been just a surface level comedy. However, Kaling’s writing is so brilliant and nuanced that she’s able to encase her story with themes like sexual harassment, the #MeToo movement, the ostracization of women of color by their white female counterparts, the astronomical cost of living in New York, and toxic work environments that often keep women silent.
With Kaling and Thompson’s bitting banter as Molly and Katherine respectively, Late Night soars for the majority of its 102-minute run time. The film only shakes when there is a focus on Molly’s love life. Looking at her resume, it’s clear that Kaling has a soft spot for romantic comedies, but as a sub-sub-plot in the film, it’s flimsy, dull, and rather predictable. Luckily, because Ganatra’s lens is focused on Molly, Katherine, (their stellar wardrobes), as well as their personal ambitions and failures —Late Night is pretty damn exceptional.
Amazon Studios will release LATE NIGHT in NY/LA theaters on June 7 first and then it will expand nationwide on June 14, 2019.