Directed by Nisha Ganatra | Written by Mindy Kaling | 102 min | Netflix
Anyone who’s been reading this blog lately, or following the FITI Twitter feed, will know what a big fan I am of Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart, a film that works within a recognizable genre—the teen high-school comedy—while channeling some fairly progressive ideas, all while being hilarious and without a hint of a heavy hand. Late Night is an indie picture aiming for a kind of James L. Brooks-style, character-driven workplace comedy, while also wearing its politics on its sleeve. Its heart is in the right place, with a few sharp observations of the rocky road to diversity in show business, but unlike Booksmart (which I’m afraid all comedies will now be compared to), the film is shoddily directed and edited, with a script that never takes off.
Kaling stars as Molly, a woman with no experience in comedy writing but who’s a devotee of Late Night with Katherine Newbury, a talk show whose host (a biting Emma Thompson) has won every accolade the industry has to offer, but has let her show get stale. Katherine hires Molly onto the writing staff of Late Night in the hope of bringing something fresh and female to the program. It turns out Katherine, loathed by everyone around her but her husband (John Lithgow), is on her way out. Molly has ideas for making the show more relevant, and she might get the chance to apply them if Katherine doesn’t fire her first. Meanwhile, one of the nicer guys in the obnoxiously white-dude writers’ room, Charlie (Hugh Dancy), takes an interest in Molly.
There’s a lot here that seems right, starting with Kaling and Thompson, who both get moments to shine. It’s easy to see how in order to survive, Katherine had to be tougher and smarter than everyone else in the room, but she’s calcified over time. Kaling’s Molly has a rejoinder for every obnoxious remark flung her way, and she gets to address the perception that even if she got in as a diversity hire, she still needs to prove herself every day.
It’s hard to fault Kaling’s instincts (and experience) for telling a story of how a woman of colour can make it in the competitive, male-dominated show-biz world, and she has a solid blueprint for her movie with director Ganatra, whose experience is also in television.
But something’s gone wrong between conception and execution. First off, the film looks awful. The sets are cheap, with some scenes looking like they were shot through a nylon curtain. Secondly, the comedy beats are all over the place, with the picture edited without much thought to how to best serve the scripted gags.
Finally, Late Night feels like it’s trying to do too much. It shifts gears from light comedy to heavy drama, and while some of the drama works better than the jokes, in the end the stakes aren’t nearly as high as they should be. The bros in the writers room never get a chance to manifest, and it feels like the script is giving them too much credit—they aren’t nearly desperate or cutting enough—so any emotional payoff in the third act with them doesn’t feel earned. Molly’s romantic interludes with Charlie aren’t given enough space to breathe, and he’s so clearly a sleaze we don’t much care anyway—he’s a plot function rather than a character we get to know or care about.
The recent material Late Night probably has the most in common with include The Devil Wears Prada, The Big Sick, and especially Tina Fey’s 30 Rock, which brought a feminist perspective to a behind-the-scenes entertainment environment. This movie suffers in comparison to all—it’s never as knowing, confident, or witty. It’s a real shame because Thompson and Kaling are watchable, but the picture around them doesn’t hold together.