Mindy Kaling and Emma Thompson Crash the Boys’ Club of Comedy
Early on in “Late Night,” a dryly funny and gently subversive comedy written by and co-starring Mindy Kaling, we know we’re in the world of pure fantasy. After 27 years, late-night TV queen Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson), the first female network talk show host, is about to be deposed. This is fantasy, because there never has been a female late-night host on network TV, let alone one whose first monologue dates back to the year Johnny Carson retired. Newbury is a dinosaur, in that she predates Jay Leno and competes with his replacement, Jimmy Fallon.
In part, the film is about what it’s like to be the only woman—and/or person of color—in the men’s room of comedy writers. Its ruefully amusing running joke draws humor from the strange encounters newbie Molly Patel (Kaling) has with her male coworkers in the ladies’ room. They have long been in the habit of using the men’s room for urinating and the ladies’ for defecating. Make of this metaphor what you will.
The better part of the film centers on the intergenerational relationship forged between the steely Newbury and puppyish newcomer Patel. Thompson is not merely great but superb as an intelligent, mercurial depressive who has been in the game so long that she hasn’t noticed that the rules have changed. She doesn’t play the part like a caricature boss from hell (think Miranda Priestly in “The Devil Wears Prada”) or as a role model warmly welcoming a protégée. She is a deeply private woman in grief since she became caregiver to her terminally ill husband (John Lithgow). And now she’s in shock at becoming the caretaker of a once-popular show currently on life support.
The icy Newbury, a longtime believer in meritocracy, gets caught off guard by Patel’s warmth and effervescence. But the late-night host doesn’t exactly warm to the subordinate who holds that “meritocracy” can be a euphemism for race and gender exclusion. And the young woman doesn’t accept the boss’ insistence on hiding her personality behind that brittle stage persona.
Best known as a producer and director of television’s “Transparent,” “Late Night” director Nisha Ganatra is more concerned with developing her characters than she is in establishing a visual style. Interestingly, she frames the relationship between Newbury and Patel not as mutually antagonistic but as pragmatically professional. They make each other better. The veteran’s brusqueness encourages the newbie to shed some earnestness. The newbie’s feminist beliefs encourage the veteran to reconnect with, and express, her own.
At this point in her career, Kaling is sharper as a writer than as an actress. She can’t go as deep as Thompson—but she can go as broad. The younger writer/actress has perfected the Goldie Hawn comic fake, saying something dumb and following up with something so smart it stings.
Yet, while the movie is the story of a South Asian American like Kaling who ultimately gets respect from a writer’s room of Caucasian males, it is first and last Thompson’s film, her first since “Sense and Sensibility” (for which she wrote the adapted screenplay) that gives her the scope to show what she is capable of. Watching the film, I felt as if before, I had seen her acting spectrum only in black and white. In “Late Night,” she is in vibrant living color. And funny as hell.Wait, before you go…
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