The thing about being a woman or being a person of color or being both is that assholes who aren’t those things won’t let you forget it. Everything about you will be reduced to whatever assumptions or stereotypes they have about your experiences and your identities, and nearly whatever you do will reaffirm their assumptions. It’s a trap! And the insularity and exclusivity of that mindset, and the world those people selfishly create and guard for themselves, is what director Nisha Ganatra and writer Mindy Kaling puncture in Late Night.
Like so much of Kaling’s other work, including her essay collections Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) and Why Not Me?, Late Night takes aim at the myriad ways women are undermined and ignored, the ways their talents are often co-opted or diminished by men. If they’re smart, they can’t also be pretty. If they’re attractive, they’re probably dumb. And when they talk about female concerns — about periods or menopause or abortion rights or whatever — they’re immediately political. In Late Night, the villains are obvious (white men, broadly, but nepotism and classism and sexism, generally) but their methodology is more insidious. If enough people tell you that you don’t measure up, how long until you believe it?
Late Night begins with Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson), a woman checking her lipstick and adjusting her bra, a comedy icon who still must be concerned with a question as reductive as, “Do men find me attractive in this outfit?” After decades hosting her own late-night show, Newbury is still winning awards, but her ratings have slumped, her writers’ room is disinterested, and the head of the network, Caroline Morton (Amy Ryan), keeps demanding a meeting.
Katherine knows what is off with the show: For years, she’s tried to separate herself from male hosts with esoteric guests and niche segments, but her writers’ room is still full of white men, writing the same sort of material as everyone else. Her format isn’t keeping up with her competition, who play goofy games with celebrities and whose segments often go viral online (you can practically feel the film’s derision toward Jimmy Fallon). Katherine isn’t interested in any of that, but she needs to make a change — so on a lark, she decides to hire a female writer, and in walks Molly Patel (Kaling). She doesn’t have a background in comedy (she’s an inspector at a chemical plant) and she went to a community college (no Ivy League legacy), but she’s resourceful, and desperate to make a good first impression, and she is in fact a woman, per Katherine’s request. Hired!
After Molly and Katherine come together is when Late Night pushes it into high gear, exploring a variety of social and professional issues from their varying perspectives. Molly questions why Katherine doesn’t tell jokes about her own experiences as a woman; Katherine knows that highlighting her difference will be all some viewers see. Katherine is repelled by Molly’s earnestness and the fact that Molly is herself a fan of Katherine’s stand-up; Molly doesn’t understand how the personal bent of Katherine’s old material disappeared so fully as she became famous.
And the men around them, from Molly’s work nemesis Tom (Reid Scott, Dan from Veep, perfectly cast!) to Katherine’s husband Walter (John Lithgow), act simultaneously as mirrors and as foils. Molly is used to being underestimated by men like Tom (“I’m not a single mom, by the way, I just look like one and dress like one,” she says when she overhears him insulting her) and Katherine has spent decades of her life with Walter as her own family, and so who they are as women is in relation to those men, too, and to the varying ways they either let people in or push them away.
To say that Late Night is solely a workplace comedy wouldn’t be true; Kaling’s script touches on all the frustrations of working with “creatives” — selfishness, pettiness, cliquishness — while also still making space to consider who Molly and Katherine are outside of the office and offstage. What do they desire? What are their ambitions? The movie doesn’t provide that same depth to many other characters (especially not to most of Molly’s cowriters/rivals), but a late narrative turn merges the personal and professional in a way that is simultaneously timely and unexpected and that cements that Late Night is primarily about Molly and about Katherine, about two women who aren’t exactly friends but whose experiences overlap just enough to be allies.
Oh, and it’s all quite funny! There is the low-hanging fruit, like when Paul Walter Hauser’s Mancusco (enragingly) complains, “I wish I was a woman of color so I could just get any job I want with no qualifications,” or when Thompson’s Katherine says of a rival comedian, “He’s a T-shirt of a man,” or when Molly gets hit in the face with a trash bag. There’s also how the movie spins the reinvigoration of Katherine’s show, which gets a refresh that acknowledges her race and age and makes them comedic weapons; the segments introduced here are reminiscent of John Oliver in their righteousness and Samantha Bee in their zaniness. And then there’s the humorous-but-also-poignant stuff, like Molly crawling under a desk, in an office she shares with another writer, to cry at work, or an explosion from Katherine that brings to mind a certain Mad Men scene between Don Draper and Michael Ginsberg that was vicious in its dismissiveness.
The array of comedic styles work in Late Night, although there is an undeniable wish-fulfillment element, too, and that sincerity might not work for some viewers. But there is something very affirming about how Kaling’s Molly says, “I will not be marginalized by the iron fist of white privilege,” and how deeply this otherwise mild-mannered and sunny woman means it, that struck me deeply while watching Late Night. All that and a deeply layered, varyingly fragile and resentful performance from Thompson that should be nominated for an Oscar, if the Academy deigns to pay attention to a little old comedy from Amazon Studios this year. They — and you! — should.
Image sources (in order of posting): Epk.tv/Amazon Studios, Epk.tv/Amazon Studios, Epk.tv/Amazon Studios