From her writing and acting roles on The Office through her self-titled sitcom, Mindy Kaling has emerged as one of the great talents of her generation. Her self-critical comedy confronts major social issues while never forgetting to be entertaining. Kaling’s script for Late Night pointedly looks at changing cultural mores in a post #MeToo moment.
Directed by Kaling collaborator Nisha Gantra, Late Night is the story of Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson), the queen of late night TV who has let her talent slide, in part due to her own ossification but also because of a lack of fresh voices in her writing room. Looking to make a change, she hires Molly (Kaling), who previously did comedy bits over a loudspeaker while working at a chemical plant.
The fish-out-of-water shtick is well tread, but Kaling cleverly steers the film toward more robust ideas, including the nepotism of the entertainment industry, how tokenism can be exploited by all involved, and how people in power are not immune from overstepping, no matter the gender. John Lithgow, Max Casella, Hugh Dancy, and Amy Ryan are among the terrific ensemble. Each provides fresh insight into the movie’s many emotional and professional changes.
Kaling’s script is best when it focuses on the elements beyond the obvious and delves into the subtle manipulations and conciliations at the heart of the story. A lightness is at play on the one hand, but on the other is a deadly seriousness. For the most part, the balance works.
The middle act suffers from some bloating, as if things need to be over-explained. This may be residue from all that work in network television. Still, with strong first and final acts, the movie has plenty to admire. While I encourage the filmmakers to tighten up the story a bit more, take out some of the redundancy to make the other elements land even stronger, this is a minor criticism on what otherwise is a quite admirable piece.
At the least, Late Night firmly establishes Kaling as more than a small-screen performer. She holds her own against the iconic Thompson (who relishes the role in every scene), finding a perfect vehicle to make herself the focus of a feature film. Despite the highly personal nature of the story, it never feels self-serving or narcissistic, but instead invites audiences to empathize with these flawed but understandable characters.