Recent months have brought a lot of attention to the lack of support for female-led films, especially comedies. Recently “Booksmart”, an incredible comedy written by four women, staring two up-and-coming actresses, and directed by Olivia Wilde in her directorial debut, failed to earn much support despite being a critically acclaimed picture and offering plenty of the same absurd comedy that would normally guarantee a hit. This past weekend we saw another female-led comedy that seems to deserve a lot more respect fail again with “Late Night”. Written by Mindy Kaling and starring Kaling along with Emma Thompson and directed by Nisha Ganatra “Late Night” seems to be another critical success that failed to garner an audience for one reason or another. One has to wonder if these movies aren’t quite as good as the professionals say they are or if the public just refuses to give them a chance for whatever reason. Well, like “Booksmart”, I did give “Late Night” a chance and, spoiler alert, it deserves so much more than what it’s getting. But how much more? Are moviegoers really missing out by skipping this film? Well, I’m here to fill you in. This is my review of “Late Night”.
“Late Night” finds a legendary female talk show host named Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) faced with the prospect of being replaced despite being a pioneer in the industry and the only female talk show host in late night television. With her show losing rating due to her unwillingness to compromise in her content and her overdependence on a large group of white male writers, Newbury challenges critics who call her a “woman who hates women” and impulsively hires a female writer to spice things up. Enter Moly Patel (Mindy Kaling), an aspiring comedian and writer who attempts to help Newbury recapture the charm of her glory years by making the show more personal and authentic while also embracing a modern edge. Molly finds Newbury difficult to work with at first, however Newbury soon learns she may have to be open to change with the times and personal evolution or be left behind and lose the show that has become her passion and her life.
I will admit that “Late Night” did lack an aggressive marketing campaign and I only learned about it through internet ads, but it really was a worthwhile viewing experience. As I’ve said many times comedy is a hard genre for me to get into, but this is the second time in as many months that a truly awesome female-led comedy has slipped under the radar. I found “Late Night” to be a whole lot of fun in more ways than one. While it does conform to a few genre tropes and clichés, for the most part it felt fresh, unique, and embraced a very well written script and screenplay from its star Mindy Kaling that is both smart and amusing. There’s a great balance in this picture between slightly over-the-top humor and genuine social commentary, the kind of blend that really makes a comedy worth watching. It could have been really easy for this narrative to go too far in either direction, but even when it rides the line it manages to keep everything pretty well centered.
Part of this is due to the awesome chemistry between Kaling and Emma Thompson. Kaling is a great talent who captures the star-struck and ambitious newcomer trope quite well. Emma Thompson plays the exact opposite, an overconfident and often pretentious superstar of her medium who feels untouchable but fails to realize that her old ways are not going to keep her relevant. Together these characters challenge the status quo of a pair of generations with Thompson representing the past being unwilling to evolve and Kaling representing the enthusiastic millennials who are almost too ambitious for their own good. I loved watching these two work off and learn from each other. It would have been so easy to present one as superior to the other but really, like most of this film, there’s a great balance. We get to see Thompson’s Katherine Newbury’s stubborn personality and unwillingness to change clash with Kaling’s Molly trying maybe too hard to assert the need for change on Newbury and her staff. At the same time though it’s easy to see Newbury in the right when she scolds Molly for walking into the writers room thinking she can own the place while Molly has to learn that subtlety and earning your place in the filed are important aspects of making an impact. Thankfully it’s become more common that movies like this challenge the barriers between generations, speaking to both demographics and pointing out why they are both flawed in their own ways. “Late Night” does this in a manner that never feels insulting or preachy. It just becomes a natural part of the growth of an on-screen relationship.
That’s kind of how the rest of the film is handled as well. “Late Night” rides a very careful line in its handling of politics and social issues but it does, in fact, tackle some very relevant and important concepts. What’s most impressive is that it’s not afraid to throw realities in the viewers’ faces, making you laugh one moment about the idea of prejudice, token hiring, sexism and other issues and then taking a more serious turn to explain how the problem is not as simple as people think it is. There’s one cool moment where Molly outright claims she was a token hire, both in gender and in race, and Newbury admits that was part of it but she also explains that the social construct of the world demands that women work harder to get to where they are implying that while the idea of a token hire might feel bad it’s a step closer to making equality a norm. And this is just one of many moments that provide great commentary but sprinkle in genuine humor to lighten up the mood without overshadowing the message. There are times when the film is maybe a little too direct but these moments are so well written, directed and acted that they feel like real situations rather than forced conflicts to drive home a message. It’s smart and effective writing with great laughs built through irony and harsh truths but it’s never mean spirited. It’s simply honest, presenting tact and a sense of understanding while also being unwilling to compromise on what it has to say which, as it turns out, is the same exact approach to comedy that Molly is trying to get Newbury to embrace the entire film.
“Late Night” does have a few blemishes including incorporating side stories and scenes that, by the end of it all, feel insignificant or forced in to drive a later plot element. There are a few blatant clichés and “Late Night” rarely tries to hide them. But I think that’s part of the film’s charm. Even when it sticks to conventions it rises above any familiarity to give us something genuinely fun and insightful. It knows it has to lean on some tropes to get the job done but refuses to take the easy road with so much of its story that when it does venture into the familiar territory it’s more welcoming than forced. That’s my long way of saying that “Late Night” overpowers most of its flaws with great energy, an engaging pace, an awesome and committed cast, smart writing, and enough new or rarely used elements to give it its own unique personality and identity. It was only in hindsight when I tried to describe the film to others that I found myself relating it back to other comedies like “The Devil Wears Prada” or “Office Space”. Even when you make these connections “Late Night” still manages to embrace its own style and never really feels like a retread of previously explored territory. That’s a difficult feat to accomplish, especially in a genre traditionally lacking much originality even in its most respected pictures nowadays.
To bring this to a close I just have to say I loved this film. It’s a fun, smart, interesting and witty comedy that hits all the right notes without ever taking things too far. It strikes a perfect balance by offering great insight into American culture of the past and present while also taking the time to allow viewers to laugh at themselves and the ridiculousness of the prejudices and perspectives that we as a society have explored over the years. There’s a lot this film has to say and it says it loud and clear, but even at it’s most brutally honest “Late Night” tackles every issue with an understanding that not everyone sees the world in the same way. Even the two lead characters come from different generations and see each other differently, eventually learning that there is a fine balance between their personalities that make them a great team. It’s truly sad that a comedy like this has failed to shine through and earn the fan support it so truly deserves. This is the kind of comedy the world really deserves. While there is always room for more ridiculous comedies like “Booksmart” to stand out, I believe comedies like “Late Night” that balance satire and honesty with hilarity and sharp dialogue are where this genre really shines. If you get the chance this is a comedy I implore you to check out. To borrow from Katherine Newbury’s catchphrase, it’s a film that really earns the privilege of your time.