Late Night: Too Little, by David Bax
When Mindy Kaling’s Molly Patel first appears onscreen in Nisha Ganatra’s Late Night, all bright-eyed and grinning, basic movie literacy tells us to be prepared for the plot to put her through the wringer. But Kaling’s screenplay will soon suggest that Molly’s naive optimism may just be a front to disarm those who find her mere presence, as a woman of color entering their space, to be a threat. First, though, the movie has to confirm our initial assumptions by smacking Molly right in her beaming face with a garbage bag. That’s Late Night. For every trope it intends to upend, it lazily treads one out without the verve or wit to suggest it’s in on the joke.
Molly is a stand up comic and blue collar worker who lands a new gig on the writing staff of a long running late night talk show. What she quickly learns is that she’s only been hired because the show’s host, Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson), wants to refute accusations of internalized misogyny by putting another woman in the room. Or, rather, a single woman in the room, as Katherine herself has been on autopilot for years and hasn’t even met most of her writers. Her show has been steadily racking up awards on the strength of its early prestige (one of many touches that prove Kaling’s familiarity with how the television industry functions) but sliding in the ratings, all while Katherine has become more arrogant and insufferable.
Evidence of Kaling’s deft comic talents have been piling up for close to fifteen years so it’s a surprise that so much of Late Night fails to garner laughs. Outside of the jokes and bits within Katherine’s show–which are, again, pitch perfect facsimiles of how television works in our world–most of the comedy here fails to take off. It’s not unfunny, it’s simply adequate.
It’s not the stacked cast (including, in addition to Kaling and Thompson, dependable funnymen like Reid Scott, Paul Walter Hauser, John Early and Ike Barinholtz) that fail to show up. So perhaps it’s Ganatra’s lackluster direction that’s to blame. Late Night‘s lack of energy is only matched by its visual blandness and its occasionally awkward editing. A bad joke in a comedy is uncomfortable but one that goes on way too long, like Katherine’s struggle to climb the stairs to Molly’s walkup apartment, can be painful.
Late Night is at its strongest in its detailed, humorous but edifying (for a white person like myself) depiction of the politics of being a woman or a minority in the workplace. Or, in this case, both. Molly works twice as hard for half the recognition and then has to pretend to be modest when she gets it, lest she seem arrogant or entitled in front of those who actually are. In one masterful scene, set at a party at Katherine’s house, Molly rescues her new boss from being caught out as a heartless authoritarian in front of the press. But what she’s really doing is conjuring an unspoken bargaining chip, an illustration of how she may be new to comedy writing but not to negotiating the world from a place of lesser power.
As Late Night goes on, though, there’s less of this sort of thing and more basic screenwriting pap; humanizing monologues for Katherine and inspiring bounces back from adversity for Molly. For a film crafted by its star, it’s all disappointingly impersonal. It could have used less feel-good and more feeling.