‘Late Night’ Charms But Lacks Sharpness

Photo by Emily Aragones

Mindy Kaling is one of my favorite people in comedy, often mentioned in the same breath as people like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. I’ve seen every episode of The Mindy Project and have read both of her New York Times bestsellers twice. Until now, Kaling hasn’t established herself as a screenwriter for feature films. That all changed earlier this year at Sundance, with Late Night. Exactly how bright is Kaling’s future in big-screen Hollywood?

Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) is a legendary late night talk show host whose show is experiencing creative challenges. The writer’s room full of 30-something white men isn’t delivering the goods, and the network CEO informs Katherine that her program is being canceled due to bad ratings and the lack of enthusiasm around her program. She decides to hire Molly (Kaling), the show’s first female writer of color. We follow their relationship and their journey to save Katherine’s show.

Considering this is Kaling’s first big-screen outing as a screenwriter, her work is solid. However, this is material that should be very close to her heart, and as a result, doesn’t feel as sharp as it could. Kaling has created and written for several television programs at this point, where she has probably no doubt been the only woman or the only person of color in a writer’s room. This workplace comedy lacks the bite it needs to feel as authentic as possible. Late Night is no Veep. If anything, it’s diet The Devil Wears Prada. For every moment that feels true, there’s one that feels a bit hokey and dishonest. Molly writes an abortion joke for the show’s monologue that is treated like a rough, daring joke that a comedian would be scared to say on TV. The joke itself is so monotonous and tame that you wonder if this is a metaphor for the film itself.

Emma Thompson, who doesn’t get enough chances to dig into a juicy character, is excellent here. She and Kaling have charming, lovely chemistry that makes up for the sharpness the script lacks. Thompson, an Academy Award-winning screenwriter herself, should have co-written the script with Kaling. You leave wondering what that movie might have been. Perhaps her voice could have lent the workplace-comedy tone this lacks. However, the two actresses have clear respect and admiration for each other that does shine through in the end.

Nisha Ganatra doesn’t direct this with much flair, and there’s nothing that stands out about the directorial style. There’s nothing much to be said for the cinematography or the music. The film does avoid some potentially painful on-the-nose song cues in certain moments, so it has that going for it. It also was probably written a few years ago, and it already feels quite dated. It would be impossible for a late night talk show host in 2019 to not go political, for instance. Katherine makes a surprise appearance at a nightclub and does some stand-up, and not a single phone appears in the audience because the script did not want this moment to go viral.

Every time I see a film about stand-up comedy, whenever the film shows the jokes it’s talking about, the jokes are never as funny as they should be. And that’s how this feels in certain aspects. It feels underwritten in moments and then is surprisingly snappy in others. I wouldn’t say Late Night is a failure, or even horribly disappointing. It’s earnest and entertaining, but a bit soft and safe where it should be clever and piercing. As Kaling’s first full-length screenplay, she hits more positive beats than negative. Speaking as an avid fan of her comedic voice, I would say I’m a little letdown, but it’s fine. It’s just good enough to get her more work. I still can’t wait to see what she does next.

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