Mindy Kaling’s feature film writing debut ‘Late Night’ offers charm and heartfelt comedy

 By Douglas Davidson

June 7, 2019

As theaters ramp up for animated animal adventures, alien invasions, and yet another zombie apocalypse, there’s a small work-place comedy executed by an incredible cast of comedic actors offering up something different. Written by Mindy Kaling (The Mindy Project) and headlined by Kaling and Emma Thompson (Men in Black 3), Late Night tackles sexism, ageism, nepotism, and the solubility of a meritocracy without giving up hilarity or the occasional dip into serious character work. The film is a lovely salve for a cinematic audience bombarded by over-hyped action and CG. It’s just right for when a simple, straight-forward, relationship-focused film is all you need to take a break from the day.

Emma Thompson as Katherine Newbury. Courtesy of Amazon Studios

After 28 years hosting “Tonight with Katherine Newbury,” Katherine (Emma Thompson) may soon find herself out of a job. Despite winning countless awards and accolades, new company president Caroline Morton (Amy Ryan) considers the once resonate show stagnant and in need of a fresh perspective. Concerned for her livelihood and legacy, Katherine tasks her producer Brad (Denis O’Hare) with finding a new writer, specifically a woman. Answering the call is Molly Patel (Kaling), a quality control specialist at a chemical plant whose love of comedy began at an early age. With Katherine’s unrelenting desire to stay on the air and Molly’s determination to be seen as more than a diversity hire, they find an opportunity for each to get exactly what they need.

Late Night marks the first time Kaling, who has already mastered television, has written a feature film; and it’s a strong initial outing. She understands how to set up characters and establish their needs and relationships, all while naturally developing the story to take on unexpected aspects. For instance, Thompson’s Katherine is the character the film begins with and it’s not until after much of the conflict is established that Kaling’s Molly is introduced. Though each character is on a parallel, albeit vastly different personal journey, Katherine (not Molly, as the marketing suggests) creates the center around which all other plotlines revolve. Kaling defies audience expectations for the type of film Late Night is by putting the right character forward, not just the younger one. It may seem to be a small detail but this gets straight to the heart of one of the underpinning themes of Late Night: relevance by way of youth.

Emma Thompson as Katherine Newbury. Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Thompson absolutely kills her role as Katherine, making her more than a character on a page littered with tropes. Versatile as ever, Thompson steals the focus every time she shares the screen with anyone, which is a boon given the nature of her TV host character’s need to do the same. Thompson’s performance is not the only key ingredient to Late Night, however. Kaling’s script shows she understands that humor isn’t just about a line of dialogue or slip on a banana peel, but the honesty of the delivery. Perhaps this is why Late Night is comprised of talents like John Lithgow (3rd Rock from the Sun), Reid Scott (Veep), Max Casella (Jackie), Ike Barinholtz (The Oath), and a litany of other incredible comedic talents. Refreshingly, these fine comedians prop up Thompson and Kaling, filling the roles of the supportive spouses, colleagues, etc. that women often fall into in this type of workplace story. Not once do they overtake or intrude, nor are they subservient or subject to caricature. Even in small pieces, the supportive performances feel fully realized, making the world of Late Night seem less invented and more concrete.

There are two aspects of Late Night which prompt minor complaints. For one, the entire film, while wonderfully directed by Brooklyn Nine-Nine veteran Nisha Ganatra, never stops feeling like an extended episode of a broadcast program. Perhaps because the narrative revolves around a television program, the whole film is enveloped within that smaller visual mileu. So Late Night never busts through that broadcast feel to capture any cinematic spark. The second is a smaller quibble regarding styling. At a moment close to the end, a song is inserted as a character ascends a set of steps. If this were a romantic comedy or if Late Night were prone to such inclusions, the song wouldn’t stand out in the slightest. Instead, a brief yet highly amusing sequence shifts awkwardly as it takes on a sudden “girl power” element the scene neither requires nor benefits from.

Reid Scott as Tom Campbell and Mindy Kaling as Molly Patel. Courtesy of Amazon Studios

The idea of seeking out a film which determinedly discusses sexism and ageism might not seem like a fun night out. But instead of a lecture, audiences are gifted with a breezy, charming, and often heartfelt comedy which may actually help them forget about what’s going on outside the theater walls. Sometimes we could use a break from the heaviness of the world and there’s something about an unfeigned comedy that can do the heart good.

Star Rating: 3.5 out of 5

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