Increasingly the movie landscape has been dominated by massive tentpole blockbusters backed by equally large marketing budgets and established intellectual properties. Buried under that weight exist films of a smaller vein struggling to escape in a far more rapid, more competitive attention economy. Recently the critically acclaimed Booksmart saw an underwhelming box office performance relative to its widespread praise leading to questions as to the viability of such affair especially in the eyes of studios primarily looking out for the bottom line. But such a narrow measure of success undersells the impact that these smaller films can have particularly to underrepresented demographics. Enter Late Night, the latest comedy vehicle from Mindy Kaling and director Nisha Ganatra well worth seeking out amidst a franchise heavy summer season.
Written by and starring Kaling, alongside Emma Thompson, Late Night is the story of late night talk show host, Katherine Newbury (Thompson) who is in danger of being replaced by the network with raunchy comedian Daniel Tennant (Ike Barinholtz) due to decreasing relevance, poor ratings, and her less than friendly attitude towards female staff writers. In an effort to change public perception of her and restore the goodwill that she’s worked for over the course of her illustrious career, she hires Molly Patel (Kaling) in order to diversify her all white, all male writing staff and reclaim her status in show business before she is forced to retire.
Much like Booksmart, Late Night seems to have its finger directly on the pulse of the challenges and conceptions that women are faced with, specifically in 2019. It takes aim at specific current trends and movements, in admittedly unsubtle and on-the-nose approaches that come across as attempts to seem more topical, much to the same extent that actual late night talk shows do in all fairness. In having the story be written by and told from the perspective of a woman of color, the film is able to exemplify the necessity for diverse voices in media, not simply just for the sake of liberal brownie points (the initial reason that Katherine hires Molly in the first place), but for the betterment of the comedy being produced, the material being tackled, and the voices being heard. Molly’s minimal influence in the writer’s room proves to have substantial effects as she challenges the political viewpoints and comedic perspectives of Katherine and her staff to take a stand by saying things that only she as an aging woman in the industry can rightfully comment on, within a sea of the same white male counterparts in the realm of late night hosts.
For a film with its sights set on indicting traditional industry standards and practices that put women at a disadvantage, Kaling’s script is perceptive enough to not only take aim at the white patriarchy as the sole perpetrator. It’s rare that female empowerment stories ever dare to point towards white women as being just as culpable for the oppression of women, particularly women of color, as the white male establishment, while still acknowledging the unique biases and discriminations that they themselves must also face. Katherine jokes in one of her stand-up sets that a woman her age needs to get a facelift just to get cast as the voice of a wise old tree in a Pixar movie.
Given the amount of insightful and necessary commentary that the film provides in order to help it stand out as something more than just another workplace studio comedy, there still exists a plethora of typical tropes and cliches throughout that stop it short from feeling like a truly honest depiction of reality. More complicated issues involving some of the central characters arise in the latter half of the film that ends up resolving themselves in typical romantic comedy fashions that feel too quick and easy. These issues come standard with any modern mainstream comedy, but for a breakout Sundance indie darling, the expectations for it to subvert those tropes and tackle the social issues and personal drama with more hard-hitting reality are much higher.
As one of the few women of Indian descent currently working in comedy, Mindy Kaling is a fresh and unique voice in the realm of comedy with perspectives on race, feminism, and equality that very few other comedic personalities can claim to possess. Late Night is a representation of everything that Kaling has to offer as a comedic presence, both as a writer and performer. The ideas that she approaches with her screenplay tie into many complex societal issues that have been brought to light in recent years, and she clearly has thoughtful and insightful perspectives on how they are discussed. The manner in which they are explored and resolved in the finished screenplay, however, could have been fleshed out more deeply. Despite that, Late Night remains a funny, endearing, and likable comedy of overcoming adversity led by two hilarious women managing to touch on certain complex issues, but might not always stick the landing in the resolution.