Cross The Devil Wears Prada with 30 Rock, and you might get something like Late Night, director Nisha Ganatra’s timely comedy about a starry-eyed young comedy writer named Molly (Mindy Kaling) who gets the chance of a lifetime when she’s hired to work for iconic late-night talk show host Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson). Written by Kaling, the movie mixes behind-the-scenes showbiz humor with smart observations about what it’s really like for women to break down barriers.
In Molly’s case, those barriers are twofold: Not only is she a woman, but she’s a woman of color. So she represents two groups not traditionally present in late-night show writers’ rooms, which are infamous for being populated by young, Ivy League-educated white men. But when Katherine learns that her stagnating show will be axed if she doesn’t turn things around, new blood is the order of the day — and Molly is definitely new blood.
The two women don’t exactly bond when Molly arrives on the scene; Katherine isn’t the nurturing type, and she doesn’t have the time or inclination to mentor a writer she mostly hired to check off a diversity box. But Molly’s ability to look at the show with fresh eyes eventually makes a real difference, and Katherine starts to take an interest in the former chemical plant worker. Meanwhile, Molly works hard to earn her fellow writers’ respect — even when they don’t necessarily deserve it. She spars with Tom (Reid Scott), starts a romance with Charlie (Hugh Dancy), and learns a few things from veteran Burditt (Max Casella).
Anyone who knows anything about Kaling’s personal career trajectory in comedy will realize that Late Night is likely a fairly thinly veiled version of many of her real-life challenges — and triumphs — on the road from The Office writer to movie star. And it’s never all that hard to guess where the movie’s story is going. But it’s so much fun getting there, thanks to excellent performances from both stars — Thompson is perfect as the talented, brittle Katherine, who’s been conditioned by her fight to get to the top to never let down her guard — and Kaling’s warm, funny script. As Molly knows and Katherine relearns, representation matters, and Late Night is a great example of the myriad stories waiting to be told by those who haven’t always had a seat at the table. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Marilyn Ferdinand: When Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson), the intellectual doyenne of late-night TV talk, learns she is about to be replaced with a vulgar, but popular, comedian (Ike Barinholtz) to stop the long ratings slide of her audaciously named, out-of-touch “Tonight” show, she gets involved as she never has before with her writers, including a new hire and the only woman in the bullpen, Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling). Director Nisha Ganatra and screenwriter Kaling, both long-time television insiders, skewer everything from the dumbing down of entertainment to job insecurity with sharp wit and generosity. Emma Thompson gets to exercise the considerable comedic skills she developed as a member of the Footlights Dramatic Club when she attended Cambridge, proving once again that she can do anything. While the set-up of Late Night is pure fantasy—a female network head, a reigning queen of late night, a diversity hire with zero experience killing it with her jokes and suggestions—the film seems to subscribe to the notion that if you can see it, you can be it. There’s not a moment of this funny, touching film you won’t enjoy.
Pam Grady: Emma Thompson delivers a master class in high comic imperiousness as arrogant (and out of touch) late night talk show host Katherine Newbury facing the end of a long run in this witty and timely comedy, directed by Nisha Ganatra and written by Mindy Kaling. Kaling costars alongside Thompson as diversity hire Molly, the addition to an otherwise white, male writing staff, who just might hold the key to Newbury’s survival. The chemistry between Thompson and Kaling is delicious, opposites who combine into a formidable and hilarious duo, aided by sharp supporting turns from John Lithgow, Amy Ryan, Denis O’Hare, Max Casella, Hugh Dancy, and Reid Scott. If Kaling’s deep roots in television are evident in a screenplay that often plays like an extended sitcom in its setups and beats, those roots also serve the story. This is an industry Kaling knows well and she lays bare its ingrained sexism and racism brilliantly with a sly light touch.
Leslie Combemale: Late Night, a very funny film with complex female characters, is just one example of what truths a comedy written by, acted by, and directed by a woman can reveal. What makes Late Night at once such a delight and, in some respects, so heartbreaking, is that is feels very authentic in its representation of working women. It feels that way because writer Mindy Kaling has been there. The writer and star mines the disrespect and dispassionate dismissal of her talent she has experienced throughout her career into comedic gold. Director Nisha Ganatra brings Kaling’s script to life with such confidence and insight, that a strong connection is forged between the audience and the film’s characters. Emma Thompson, Patron Saint of Smart Women in Film, builds a portrait of a powerful middle-aged woman who is neither wholly good or bad, and with a lot to learn. How refreshing is that?
MaryAnn Johanson: I love this movie so much! It’s such a pleasure to see a story about two *very* different women, of different generations, with different perspectives on the world, clashing in such a deliciously comedic oil-and-water way. I love all the feminist zingers — “It’s not fair, but it never is for women,” Emma Thompson’s Katherine says at one point, which could apply to so many aspects of women’s lives — and all the reminders to just be yourself, even if that takes bravery and means upsetting people by rocking the boat of the status quo. (I love that the movie completely upends one man’s warning to Katherine to “be careful of showing who you are,” by having her embracing who she is as the reason for the new resurgence of her success.) Girls and women need to see this movie (and many more like it) for obvious reasons, but I really hope boys and men will see it too, and perhaps begin to understand all the extra obstacles women face in the workplace and in the word. Read full review.
Marina Antunes: On the surface, Late Night looks like the perfect confluence of female power in Hollywood: a talented director in Nisha Ganatra, big-name stars in Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling, and a story that tackles, head on, the abysmal landscape of late night talk shows. But what makes Late Night really special, beyond the excellent performances from both Thompson and Kaling that might usually be enough, is the script. Kaling pulls from her experience in various writers rooms, to educate this story which tackles all sorts of sacred cows – everything from diversity hiring to ageism – in a way that is thoughtful, insightful and also very funny while never losing sight of the emotional arc of the characters making Late Night not only a great story of people (more specifically women) overcoming obstacles, but also one of friendship and respect.
Jennifer Merin: Late Night is a very smart and timely comedy directed by Nisha Ganatra, written by Mindy Kaling, who also co-stars with Emma Thompson. The film’s femme-centric plot revolves around late night tv host Katherine Newbury (Thompson) who is about to lose the show that’s been the center of her life for decades. The show is off in the ratings because of audience erosion. In en effort to regain her show’s popularity and keep her career alive, she must reinvent her format, which also means reinventing herself. She does so with the help of an accidental ‘diversity’ hire, Molly Patel (Kaling), a naively forthright and uniquely astute writer without any previous experience. Sparks fly in all the right directions. This is a great watch, one that is all feminist inspiration.
Sandie Angulo Chen: Emma Thompson is unforgettable as a whip-smart, casually cruel, devastatingly dismissive late-night talk show host in director Nisha Ganatra’s Late Night. Thompson’s uncompromising Katherine Newbury is up there with Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly – a brilliant, difficult woman so used to being pandered to that she doesn’t quite know how to deal with an earnest, opinionated protégé (in this case, co-star and screenwriter Mindy Kaling as Molly Patel, a chemical plant quality control officer who chats her way into a writing gig on Newbury’s ratings-anemic show). The dynamic between Thompson and Kaling is fabulous to watch, as is the ensemble of 30-to-50-something men who play Katherine’s otherwise all-white, all-male writers’ room. John Lithgow and Amy Ryan also shine as Katherine’s supportive older husband and vindictive corporate boss, respectively. Late Night poses questions about sexism, elitism, and racism, and why sometimes all it takes is finding undiscovered talent (not just from the Harvard Lampoon) to take a step forward.
Sheila Roberts: Late night TV is big business where top ratings matter. If you’re the host and can’t deliver, your days are numbered. Emma Thompson delivers a terrific performance in Amazon Original’s Late Night, a smart, tightly paced comedy with witty characters, strong acting, and a hilarious femme-centric plot directed by Nisha Ganatra from a screenplay by Mindy Kaling. Read full review.
Liz Whittemore: Finally, ladies rule in Late Night. It is about damn time. This film is a gut punch to the patriarchal entertainment industry. Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling are magnificent foils for one another. Each a legend in her own way, these two brilliant women give fully nuanced performances around Kaling’s hilarious and politically spot-on script. The jokes are delicious and biting and completely in your face. This is a fearless film in unapologetically tackling misogyny, white privilege, respect, and slut-shaming. If you don’t absolutely love Late Night, well it’s time for you to go to bed. It is brash and uninhibited and those of us who get this, live for moments of success like the one Late Night will undoubtedly have. This film is right now and we are up for it.
Susan Wloszczyna: When Thompson and Kaling are together, the sparks fly. But all the boys-will-be-boys humor attached to the previously all-male writing team often smells a little stale and overdone. But is Late Night worth watching? Very much so, thanks primarily to the ladies, who include Amy Ryan’s no-nonsense network executive. Let’s just say it lives up to Newbury’s own show-ending catchphrase – it earns the privilege of your time. Read full review.
Nell Minow: Mindy Kaling famously loves romantic comedies, but the romance that matters in this movie is the love for excellence, for taking on the challenge of the battle against not caring, sometimes at the cost of happily-ever-after endings. Thompson gives one of the best performances of her career because the part she plays is as complicated and brilliantly talented as she is.
Cate Marquis: Mindy Kaling and Emma Thompson make a great, if unlikely, team, with Kaling handling the comedy heavy lifting and Thompson taking on the dramatic, more reflective stuff. Together they cover issues that women at either end of their career face – a rare, ambitious two-pronged approach. It is a lot of ground for one film to cover, and not everything works perfectly, but Late Night handles in well enough that it comes out a comedy winner. Read full review.
Title: Late Night
Director: Nisha Ganatra
Principal cast: Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, Amy Ryan, John Lithgow, Hugh Dancy, Reid Scott
Release Date: June 14, 2019
Running Time: 102 minutes
Screenwriter: Mindy Kaling
Distribution Company: Amazon
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Marina Antunes, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, MaryAnn Johanson, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sheila Roberts, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna
Edited by Jennifer Merin