Late Night – Film Review
by Diana Perez Garcia
Director: Nisha Ganatra
Writers: Mindy Kaling (screenplay by)
Stars: Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, John Lithgow, Hugh Dancy
Although Late Night would like you to think that it is a female-centred comedy that packs a political punch under its veneer of showbiz pizzazz, the only way to make sense of it is as a comedy dystopia. Bear with me, it is 2019 and the only professional female comic that appears to be left in America is a white fifty-something English late night chat show hostess called Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson). We know that Katherine was once a comedian of note in spite of the flagging ratings of her outmoded show because she wears expensive suits with complicated accessories. In addition to this, her masculine attire, severe quiff, oversized earrings and fashion-forward shoes speak of the difficult balancing act she faces as the only woman in a male dominated environment (the answer, if you are listening, Katherine, is, accessorise less; those earrings are a distraction). But I digress; we also know that she is an exacting boss to her team of writers because she likes to remind her staff –all male, all white, and, presumably, all heterosexual – that she has an unwavering passion for excellence in a cut glass English accent. And we know that she is intelligent because she does not quite know what Twitter is and she name checks Tess of the D’Urbervilles in an interview with a millennial.
For reasons that are not fully clarified in Mindy Kaling’s perplexing script, but may have something to do with a philistine head of the network who feels slighted by Katherine’s disdain for her philistine views on late night show standards, the comedy tyrant played by Thompson finds herself in the sudden and dire need of having to hire a female writer for the first time in her long career. Finding herself at a loss in the wasteland of female comic talent that is 2019 America in the parallel universe where the film is set, she is forced to hire an inexperienced comedy fan who is offered the interview after winning an essay-writing contest at the chemical plant where she works. The prize is to meet an executive of her choice and she chooses one who happens to also be an executive at the parent company for the network where Katherine is struggling to keep her ratings up. Inexplicably, not only is she considered but instantly hired when Katherine’s producer is pressed to find a female comic mid interview. Yes, I am not making this up: in the world of Late Night, the only way to get a female comic is to hire a woman whose path to comedy resembles the paper clip challenge. If only Mindy Kaling was available for hire this would not be happening, you say to yourself in despair, and then you realise that the rookie comedian, called Molly Patel, is played by Mindy Kaling.
In addition to being a woman who dabbles in comedy and, therefore, by the standards set by the script, as rare and elusive as a unicorn, Molly also happens to be of Indian descent, thus conveniently ticking another box in the diversity quota that Katherine Newbury is mysteriously compelled to meet after years of being the only woman in the world of comedy. Molly is the kind of comedy fan who likes to recite the closing lines of William Butler Yeats’s “The Cloths of Heaven” to steady her nerves, hitherto only seen outside exam halls minutes before the start of English finals. She also likes inspirational posters and cupcakes and lives in Brooklyn with her invisible uncle and aunt and has the only Asian mother in the history of American film to ever encourage her daughter to go out more and work less.
Needless to say, Molly is not well received in the writers’ room, where a team of male writers gather round a table resembling the jury in Twelve Angry Men, but with less funny lines. One of the writers, livid that his white brother has been overlooked for the position in favour of Molly, pointedly mutters that he wished he were “a woman of colour to get any job I want with zero qualifications”. When she hears these words, Molly is outraged, and so would I be, were it not because Molly has just gotten a job for being a woman of colour in spite of her zero qualifications. Elsewhere, in the course of a party in her townhouse in Gramercy Park, Katherine Newbury settles the question with the adage, “funny is funny”, to explain that comedy is a meritocracy to another one of her male writers, Hugh Dancy, playing one of two undercooked love interests to Kaling’s Molly. I think Gilda Radner turned twice in her grave at this point. I won’t spoil the rest of the film for you: suffice to say that we discover that Katherine has a heart, and Molly, a head, or courage, or both. Someone kisses someone and someone is reconciled with someone and some lessons are learnt by those who need learning them. At some point there is a standing ovation and a makeover.
Late Night has received some accolades and critical praise for tackling important issues in a timely manner because its script – a very poor one according to any standards but particularly to those of a talented comic like Kaling – inconsistently gestures in the direction of sexism, racism and ageism in an industry that is notoriously sexist, racist, and ageist. This is a thesis film that sacrifices its comedy in an effort to footnote its incoherent political message. The main characters’ arc is so compromised by the film’s didactic intention that we have no sense of where they come from and don’t care where they are going. Thompson commits to her part with her usual zest and charisma but her efforts are not enough to resuscitate a script that at points is close to flatlining. Kaling does not manage to inject any charm or comic flair into her character and Ganatra’s direction is workaday and uninspired. John Lithgow is wasted as a dramatic prop to give Thompson’s character an excuse for catharsis and a cast of more than competent comic actors languishes in supporting roles that have no meat on their bones. In the end, the only laughter I managed was a sarcastic chuckle when I saw the tag line on the poster outside the cinema, “it’s time to give comedy a rewrite”.