by Miguel E. Rodriguez
Director: Nisha Ganatra
Cast: Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, John Lithgow
My Rating: 7/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 79% Certified Fresh
PLOT: After being accused of hating women, the female host (Thompson) of a popular late-night talk show makes a “diversity hire” for the writer’s room: Molly Patel (Kaling), whose straight-talking instincts put her at odds with her boss and co-writers.
On the whole, Late Night is like the best movie Judd Apatow hasn’t made yet. It’s funny (not explosively funny, but pointedly funny), smart, and actually has something relevant to say about a host of topics, but mostly it’s about women: women in the workplace, in Hollywood, in positions of power, in traditionally male-dominated industries, even women and sexual indiscretions.
Mindy Kaling (who also wrote the screenplay) plays Molly Patel, a chemical plant worker who lands an interview for a writing job at one of the most popular (fictional) late-night shows on television, and also the only one hosted by a woman: Katherine Newbury, played with style and wit by Emma Thompson.
(For the record, I could watch Emma Thompson read the phone book, and I would say that was also done with style and wit, and I’d probably be right. But moving on…)
Molly’s interview is perfectly timed, because Katherine desperately needs a “diversity hire” after she is accused of hating women. The fact that her writer’s room consists of all white men does not help her case, so Molly is hired more or less on the spot. IMDb tells me that Mindy Kaling once interned for the Conan show, so I personally have no idea how accurate the characterizations are of these writers, but I got the feeling they were pretty spot on. For example, when she’s first introduced to the room, a couple of the guys immediately ask her for sandwiches and coffee. In another twist, she uses the ladies room, only to discover that, since there are so few women employed there, all the male writers use the ladies room as well…but only when “duty” calls. (…he said as he chuckled to himself.)
We have the makings of what could have been a great comedy. As it is, we have a pretty good comedy.
My issues are at the screenplay level. The story is awesome, the characters are awesome, and the screenplay does make some sharp criticisms of the current status quo. (The best and funniest scene occurs when Katherine takes to the streets, a la Conan or Jimmy Fallon, and does a “White Savior” bit; it sounds terribly racist when I write it out like that, but I assure you, it’s hilarious and not a bit racist.) But…there were times when I thought the screenplay was pulling its punches.
For example, there’s a moment when Katherine decides to deliver a politically charged joke in her monologue (it’s a doozy, by the way). Given the plot developments by that time, I thought there would be more of that kind of material later on. But there isn’t. Alas.
There are lots of moments like that, when the screenplay felt like it was building to some kind of climactic, powerfully-written dialogue or monologue that would really lay into the characters and the audience, like an Aaron Sorkin script, or even like a comedy from earlier this year, Long Shot. But it never QUITE happens.
(Okay, there IS one scene that does deliver a great payoff…it’s played out on an empty stage between two of the main characters, and it has as much heartfelt emotion and drama as any Merchant Ivory film.)
I liked this movie. I felt like there was MORE that could have been said and done with this material that could have elevated it even more. But it is ultimately a feel-good movie that has some very funny scenes and has a lot to say.