If there’s one thing we know from 30 Rock, it’s that the world loves television (or in this case, movies) about the behind-the-scenes world of late night TV. Shows like Saturday Night Live, The Tonight Show and Tonight have dominated late night television slots for decades now. But aside from a few SNL cast members the industry has been largely void of a female presence. Enter Emma Thompson, whose character in the Mindy Kaling screenwriting and producing debut, Late Night, imagines a world where a woman runs the show.
Katherine Newbury (Thompson) is the headstrong, cynical talk show host of a late night talk show that’s been on a steady decline for years now. Part of this is due to the fact that she’s never actually communicated with her all male writing team—part of which has never even come face to face with her. The team is primarily made up of white men who got the job through nepotism despite having no experience in comedy. Aside from that, Newbury refuses to modernize her show to draw in younger crowds in ways that her competitors have been doing for years by now.
When the head of the network threatens to replace her with a younger, obnoxiously masculine comedian, Newbury decides to make an effort to save the show. After a former writer accuses her of being sexist toward women, Newbury requests to hire a woman to fill the newly open position on the show. In comes the endlessly effervescent and profoundly inexperienced Molly (portrayed by Mindy Kaling herself), a quality control worker from Pennsylvania who won a chance at interviewing for the position by a fluke. She won a contest to meet with an executive and chose the umbrella corp owner of the company that owns both her employer and the network that airs Newbury’s show. Nevertheless, Newbury wants a quota filled and Molly is the perfect woman of color to diversify the office.
Women in the Workplace
It seems as if what Kaling focused on first and foremost in writing Late Night was creating a story that shows what women in power all too often have to sacrifice in order to be taken seriously. In the film, Newbury is accused of sexism toward woman because she’s had to abandon every ounce of femininity in order to be taken seriously as a woman in charge. Often favoring masculine pantsuits over dresses, even cutting her hair short and refusing to make jokes about men on her show, it seems as if every aspect of her character is forced to cater to the men at her side. In one scene, Newbury is urged not to make a joke about Planned Parenthood by her male counterpart. This is where it becomes clear—Newbury’s show has failed because she refuses to show who she really is, not because she herself isn’t worth watching.
The rest of Late Night follows the ups and downs of Molly’s new life in the writing room of a late night TV show. The film feels reminiscent of The Devil Wears Prada with less glamour and a bit more enthusiasm. As the film is Kaling’s first shot as a feature-film writer it has potential to be an instant hit for die-hard fans. It has the tragic feel of comedies like Bridesmaids, which was Kristen Wiig’s first feature-film writing gig as well. In that sense, though, it fails to fulfill the hype as a hilariously funny commentary on women in the workplace. The jokes feel badly-timed, as the actors are often tripping over one another in delivery.
Beyond that, the overall delivery of the story seems to always feel as if it’s on the brink of becoming great but never quite gets there. In similar counterparts we would see nuances that make the film more sentimental at times, but those scenes are missing from Late Night. In general the whole thing seems lackluster, as the climactic moments of the film fail to really take off.
Don’t get me wrong, the the film is funny—it’s just not the “insanely funny comedy” that was being talked about for much of Sundance Film Festival, where it premiered. Maybe the best thing about it is Emma Thompson, whose performance is electrifying and touching from beginning to end. Think of it less as a comedy and more of a powerful commentary about women in positions of power. Because in that regard, Kaling nailed it.