Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Amazon releases the film on Friday, June 7.
The only element of Nisha Ganatra’s charming comedy “Late Night” that feels even slightly fantastical is easy enough to overlook when faced with the full force of the crowdpleaser: that a woman isn’t just a network late night talk show host, but that’s she’s been one for nearly three decades. Penned by star Mindy Kaling (the film is, crazily enough, the multi-hyphenate’s first feature film screenwriting credit), “Late Night” smartly sends up not just the cloistered world of late night television, but a current cultural climate struggling to evolve in a changing world.
Fair warning: Anyone who hates diversity, inclusion, or the possibility that a straight white man isn’t always the best fit for any job will likely hate the film, which uses classic comedic beats to tell a thoroughly modern story. If “Late Night” packs any kind of lesson, however, it’s that backward thinkers won’t prosper, and excellence and success are natural companions of advancement. Every comedy should hope to be this timely and clever.
Katherine Newbury (a delightful Emma Thompson) has held tightly to her throne as an outlier in the late night sphere for 28 years, but the slightly gentler Miranda Priestly type hasn’t managed to turn her desire for supremacy into, well, actual quality. Her ratings have been down for nearly a decade, and people are noticing. One blind spot: Katherine doesn’t like women, or more specifically, she doesn’t like young female writers who arrive on her show filled with hope and cheer for the future. Hell, she’s even got a male sidekick (Denis O’Hare, who is the most perfectly cast actor in a film that is filled with perfectly cast actors), and the only other person of consequence in her life is her long-time husband Walter (John Lithgow).
Katherine’s writers’ room is filled with random white dudes — one of the film’s best recurring jokes is the use of a low-key sight gag which repeatedly show off a conference room that seems to be purposely stocked with an interchangeable array of background actors — including amiable supporting stars like Reid Scott, Max Casella, John Early, Paul Walter Hauser, and Hugh Dancy. Informed that this season will be her last (and, even worse, that the show is about to be ceded to Ike Barinholtz, cast here as a Dane Cook-style comedian the younger generation adores) and finally itching for something new, Katherine sets a surprising mandate for O’Hare’s Brad: “Just hire a woman!”
Molly Patel (Kaling) is indeed a woman, but she has zero background in television, and her affection for comedy seems to stem almost entirely for a genuine adoration of Katherine. But Molly is a striver, and when she lands an interview at “Tonight” (a monologue in which she explains the many steps that got her foot in the door serve as a fully realized introduction to her entire worldview), she doesn’t waste a moment. She may be a diversity hire, a subject that Kaling finds humor in instead of sidestepping, but Molly has the talent and the grit to be great. She just didn’t expect to land at a failing show.
Kaling’s best-known characters, including “The Office” dimwit Kelly Kapoor and “The Mindy Show” superstar Mindy Lahiri, often veered into purposely grating territory (Kaling seems unnervingly comfortable with digging at her own perceived flaws, and finding the funny in doing so), but Molly is of a slightly different stripe. Cheerful, sweet, and friendly, she’s the kind of girl who shows up at her day of work toting a pack of cupcakes, because that’s what the internet told her to do to make a good impression, and she wants so desperately to do just that. Her appearance doesn’t result in an instant injection of whip-smart relevancy for the struggling show, and as Molly fights to fit in, Kaling manages to make the character both specific and universal. You know Molly, and you can’t help but root for her.
As Katherine and her cadre of dudes (plus Molly) attempt to resurrect the show, early bids for relevancy don’t pan out. Even booking a hugely popular YouTube star for a seemingly simple sit-down backfires spectacularly, but Ganatra and her leading ladies keep things buoyant. The digs at the late night talk show scene are prescient and true (one joke about Jimmy Fallon’s show is particularly biting and hilarious), but it’s the wider examination of how women are expected to function in the workplace that really sticks.
After a snappy first two acts, “Late Night” chugs a bit through its back end, introducing some twists and revelations that feel invented entirely to push forward the narrative, not to necessarily service it or its winning characters. A subplot that aims to put fresh perspective on #MeToo and Time’s Up initially falls flat, before evolving into an emotional turn that gives both Kaling and Thompson some of their best scenes (and an interaction so precise that it seems destined to join the pantheon of all-time great Thompson takes). Stuffed with truisms and heart, “Late Night” is also the one thing that any and every late night talk show has to strive for: funny as hell, and with something to say.
“Late Night” premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.