- Late Night
- Directed by Nisha Ganatra
- Written by Mindy Kaling
- Starring Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling and John Lithgow
- Classification 14A
- 102 minutes
- Rating 2.5 stars out of 4
The best thing about Late Night, a new comedy about modern office life, is that it could be set in almost any workplace and still feel mostly sharp and entirely necessary. The worst thing about Late Night is that it’s set in the world of late-night television.
In writer Mindy Kaling and director Nisha Ganatra’s bid to have their story of sexism and toxic ambition feel universal, they have made it frustratingly small. The points the pair make – from the myth of meritocracy to the impossibility of work-life balance – consistently land and resonate. It is just that they are surrounded by insular, and not particularly fresh, observations about the machinations of writers’ rooms and the engineering of monologues.
Part of the problem stems from how Kaling’s screenplay seems torn as to who its main character is. In the film’s best moments, the lead role belongs to Molly Patel (Kaling), a chemical-plant efficiency expert who lands a job on the writing staff of a flailing network television talk show. Although Molly’s journey into this lily-white world suffers from occasional character contradictions and narrative head-scratchers – it’s never quite clear whether we’re supposed to find Molly funny, and her journey from factory floor to writers’ room seems like a joke left over from 30 Rock’s many riffs on corporate synergy – she’s a consistently entertaining presence, and someone rarely, if ever, seen on the big screen before. Plus, Kaling has, after so many delightful moments on The Office and The Mindy Project, perfected a performative presence that’s equal parts energetic naivety and relatable aggravation.
But for about, let’s say, 51 per cent of the time, the focus is on Katherine Newbury, the host of the talk show Molly’s hired to write for. As played by the eternally excellent Emma Thompson, Katherine can never not be engaging, but she is puzzling. How has a British comedian such as Katherine survived so long on American airwaves? How much has gender informed her position in the traditionally male-dominated late-night market? Aside from a few not-particularly-hilarious faux-archival clips of Katherine’s routine and a lazy subplot about the heir apparent to her late-night throne (a Dane Cook-esque comedian played by Ike Barinholtz), these questions remain unanswered. What the film does offer, though, is a lot of bitch-boss clichés. Katherine is so mean that she’ll fire you even if your wife just had a baby! She will openly call you a “diversity hire” to your face! She won’t refer to her employees by name but rather by number! (The latter perhaps unintentional comment on how so many of Late Night’s supporting characters themselves feel anonymous, including a misused John Lithgow as Katherine’s husband.)
Even when Molly and Katherine are paired up, the results feel more messy than enlightened, at least in the early going. Here is the eager newbie and the jaded professional, trying to grow with each other and conquer gutless men whose ambition is defined by their ability to be ambitionless. It’s an approach that should catch fire given the performers’ wild talents, but it takes an awful long time – and an awful lot of inside jabs at network television only familiar to those who have never seen 30 Rock or The Larry Sanders Show or any rudimentary Saturday Night Live sketch – for the pairing to jell. Eventually, Ganatra gives the story the comic momentum it deserves and drills down on what Molly and Katherine really want and deserve. But for much of its running time, Late Night feels like two punchlines struggling for equal airtime.
Late Night opens June 14.