It won’t escape the attention of anyone with even a passing interest in television, comedy or the union of the two that the industry is overwhelmingly male. Although strides towards diversity are being made all the time, the balance is still firmly weighted in favour of white men in suits, particularly on the US late night talk show circuit. Tellingly, the only two hosts of comparable shows in the UK are Jonathan Ross and Graham Norton – successful, established white dudes who have been doing it for years.
In Late Night, written and directed by women in Mindy Kaling and Nisha Ganatra respectively, there’s an attempt to flip the script. But this isn’t simply an overt, feminist parable. It’s a movie that aims to discuss the way society frames funny women and the higher standards famous people are held to when they happen to be female.
Emma Thompson stars as seasoned late night veteran Katherine Newbury, who has hosted her show for almost three decades and amassed more than 40 Primetime Emmys in the process. The incoming network boss (Amy Ryan), however, has noted falling ratings and thinks it’s time for a shake-up. This prompts Katherine to encourage her producer Brad (Denis O’Hare) to hire a woman in an attempt to freshen up her very white, very male writing team. This opens the door for chemical plant worker Molly (Kaling), who has few comedy credentials other than being a Newbury superfan.
Molly brings a new energy to the writers’ room, but it’s not one that is welcomed by the existing staff, or by Katherine – an icy presence accused of spouting “pseudo-feminist bullshit” to mask her own hatred of women. Kaling portrays Molly as a slightly exhausting try-hard who reads articles on WorkGirlLadyBoss.com before her first day and recites a W. B. Yeats line about dreams in order to psych herself up for work.
Her desperation to accommodate everyone serves as a polar opposite of both Thompson’s uptight perfectionist approach and the laziness of the complacent male writers. Kaling’s smart, perceptive script doesn’t give any of the characters an easy ride and avoids simplistic ‘go girl’ archetypes to construct something with more complexity. It’s a film that exists in shades of grey, powered by the excellent performances of the two female leads.
The movie is at its best when Thompson is able to deliver acerbic putdowns. She refers to an anarchic, crude fellow comedian, played by Ike Barinholtz, as “a t-shirt of a man” and has an excruciating interview with a YouTube personality that earns her the moniker “Your Least Favourite Aunt” in an online headline. Thompson’s Katherine is a woman grappling with the fact her brand of comedy is no longer on top, but she’s too fiercely defensive initially to notice her need for change.
Late Night deals in this complexity with some flair, but it often muddies the comedic waters of the film and is never allowed to be the true epicentre of the narrative. Emotional subplots, including some baffling romantic entanglements and an underused John Lithgow as Katherine’s husband, are constantly thrown in with muddled results when they would have been better served by either greater focus, or by being entirely absent.
As a first foray into feature screenwriting for Kaling, though, this is a very promising film. It has a lot to say about the positioning of famous women, and women of colour, in today’s world – I acknowledge that some of that nuance may have been lost on this white, male reviewer – and is frequently very funny indeed.
Dir: Nisha Ganatra
Scr: Mindy Kaling
Cast: Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, John Lithgow, Reid Scott, Denis O’Hare, Hugh Dancy, Max Casella, Ike Barinholtz, Amy Ryan
Prd: Jillian Apfelbaum, Ben Browning, Mindy Kaling, Howard Klein
DOP: Matthew Clark
Music: Lesley Barber
Run time: 102 mins
Late Night is in UK cinemas now.