When Katherine (Emma Thompson), the host of a failing light night comedy show, hires the unapologetically positive Molly (Mindy Kaling) to liven up her overwhelming white and male writing staff, both women’s lives begin to change in ways neither of them expected. Scripted by star Mindy Kaling, Late Night is a joyous and enjoyable summer comedy that raises questions about women in comedy in 2019, while falling slightly short of exploring the effects of #MeToo in any particular depth.
Molly’s path from quality controller in a chemical plant to landing a job writing jokes in a late night TV show’s stalling and stale writer’s room is not one without obstacles. After using an essay competition to get a meeting with the network’s “parent’s parent company”, she enters the picture just as Katherine is desperate to hire a woman – not to shake things up, but to be more appealing to female viewers.
Katherine’s life is in a slump, and while she refuses to accept it – hiding in her office and waiting for the jokes to simply land on her desk rather than spend any time with her writing staff, and supporting a terminally ill husband at home. She’s fought her way to the top of the comedy world, yet we are never given a wider insight to this journey. Old clips of her performing show an eerie similarity to the late, great Victoria Wood, while a later revelation in the film’s third act from her husband hints at an interesting and somewhat controversial past.
As Molly, Kaling shines as both confident in herself and her ambitions to conquer the male-dominated world of comedy, while still struggling with finding her feet as the men in the writing room use nepotism to gain jobs. Kaling’s comedy chops, and excellent facial reactions, capture the ridiculousness of how Katherine’s TV show is being run – bring about a seismic change that no-one saw coming. Emma Thompson is brilliant, as always, as the cold and sharp TV presenter who has become isolated in her success – the line about not giving a payrise to a new parent because it “would be like giving a pay rise to a drug addict” is laugh-out loud funny, followed by Thompson’s completely non-plussed expression.
There isn’t a straightforward, meeting of minds when it comes to Katherine and Molly’s relationship. Molly’s hero worship is tested when she gets to her new job to discover there is – literally – no place for her at the table. Despite this, and the hostile attitudes from her co-workers who simply see her as a “diversity hire”, Molly fights back in the only way she knows how, by working twice as hard and making her presence un-ignorable.
Kaling has stated that Late Night is based on her experiences as a comedy writer and performer, and as a Asian-American woman in the white male world of comedy shows. Her experiences as the only female writer on The Office (US), and her subsequent career make the not only the chaos and weirdness of the writer’s room feel natural and well-observed, so is the hurdles and insults that Molly is dealing with.
Sharp in it’s observations of comedy and it’s role in the world we live it today, Late Night is an enjoyable workplace-comedy with two stars who embrace every moment of the film.