By Marc S. Sanders
Mindy Kaling is a terrific writer. I first discovered her on The Office, where she scripted many of the best episodes as well as performed in front of the camera. She’s hilarious. She wrote and produced the film Late Night from 2019, and while I think it’s incredibly smart with ideas on prominent female identities and the status quo of race and gender within a fictional late night television industry, it does not forgive itself for wrapping up its ending in a pretty, pink bow.
Emma Thompson is fierce as Katherine Newberry, a late night network tv host approaching 30 years in the business. She’s become a staple for the 11:30 slot, even if she hasn’t kept up with the times of Twitter and You Tube. The network is ready to cut ties with her as she has become too outdated with her material, the guests she has on, and whatever semblance of a routine she’s awarded from her team of writers, that are all white males that might not have outgrown their fraternity years but only now complain about their miserable married or single lives. It’s brought to Katherine’s attention that she doesn’t like women. To mix it up, she demands her office manager hire a woman, any woman, immediately.
Enter Mindy Kaling, as Molly Patel, with zero experience in writing or television who leaves her job at a chemical plant. Like all office films that always seem to take place in New York, the new person does not get on great with the boss, endures some humiliation, cries, but then gets a brave epiphany that catches the boss’ attention out of nowhere. Molly writes a funny pro choice/anti Republican joke for Katherine’s monologue. It eventually goes over swimmingly.
A well acted side story occurs when we get to see some pains that Katherine has while living with her loving husband, Walter, played by John Lithgow, who has Parkinson’s disease. They have some outstanding scenes together. So while the Katherine Newberry with the tough exterior works her writing team to the bone to save her reputation and show, she is also dealing with a terribly sad domestic life. Unfortunately, a one time affair that she had with a writer unnecessarily creeps its way into the film. When it becomes material for public tabloid, her show is all but dead. Now by and large, Late Night is a comedy, so how do you think this film will end? Happily of course.
I don’t take issue with a happy ending. I love them, and it’s often why I go to the movies to escape. However, this is the cutthroat business of television. Shows get cancelled frequently. Kaling’s script even demonstrates that with the network president. As well, Katherine’s demeanor demonstrates this when she fires a writer simply for asking for a raise and to spend more time with his kid. Throw in a couple of lines, however, give a monologue from the heart for your audience and suddenly the show is saved! I wish it would work this way but I doubt it really does.
Another angle the film explores is Molly as an Indian American woman intruding upon a white male dominated occupation. The story had me convinced that she overcomes these demographic obstacles. I bought it. What was hard to accept was the “one year later” epilogue where the show’s staff is made up of every variation of gender and race demographic imaginable with Thompson’s character doing a quick walk through the office to the studio. Every desk is occupied by a different looking person. How touching…and unconvincing. Again, I wish it was that easy to flip a perspective on an office staff, in just one year. Yet I don’t think it’s all that simple. This is where Kaling’s script is pandering way too much.
The performances are excellent. Kaling and Thompson have great scenes together. Lithgow with Thompson as well. Following the reveal of the affair, there’s a magnificent scene between them where they come to a resolve. Only, I think this moment belongs in another film. The affair storyline is not correlated enough to the rest of the picture. I would have abandoned it altogether and simply focus on Katherine, Molly and Walter’s struggles; surviving the business, entering the business and living with illness. The affair intrudes on the last act of the film and as soon as it bleeds, Kaling’s script patches it up too neatly. Thus, we get a happy ending that just doesn’t feel very authentic.
Mindy Kaling needs to work even further. I think she’s one of the brightest writers I know of today. She writes what she knows; about working in television and being an Indian American woman thereby bringing those facts about her background as new strengths for storylines. She only now has to be careful about not patching up the conflicts she masterfully creates with simply a cherry on top. She might turn the APPLAUSE sign on for her audiences, but that is not necessarily going to get the crowd on their feet and clapping.