Late Night offers fun and wish fulfillment
Late Night is an effervescent new comedy from writer Mindy Kaling and director Nisha Ganatra that would be easy to mistake for something it’s not. This isn’t The Big Short or something, using the artifice of a comedy in order to convince its audience of a point. At most, this is closer to The Birdcage, something made for an audience already attuned to the central liberal value on display–workplace diversity in this case–which may incidentally sway a few other people. That’s not a criticism! Late Night foregrounds being a workplace comedy first and a message film a distant second. Or maybe it just feels that way because of the perspective I brought to the film.
While I think digging into the moral message or bent of a film is interesting, this is a clear case where the central message is loudly communicated. I don’t think that using my white male perspective to try to dissect whether the film reflects that message in every single scene would be a particularly fruitful or necessary exercise. It’s best to leave it at this: Late Night is unlikely to change anyone’s mind, but it is basically catnip for those who already subscribe to its values. Which is a fine thing to aim for. There’s no need for anyone to make concessions or qualifications for this film, as if any number of “faith-based” movies about the power of prayer would think to do the same.
Instead, Late Night is the kind of wish fulfillment comedy that makes for a pleasant viewing experience with relatively low stakes and a charming cast. Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) is a legendary late night talk show host whose show is in a slump–creatively and as far as ratings are concerned. Thompson’s performance as Newbury is her in a similar mode to her Stranger Than Fiction character, cold and reserved, staking herself on excellence rather than personality, and it is so rare to see that kind of female character that it automatically makes the film more interesting. When Newbury is called out for her writing staff being all white men, she tells her second in command, Brad (Denis O’Hare) to hire a woman as quickly as possible. And so he hires Molly (Kaling), a chemical plant worker with a small amount of stand-up comedy experience who also happens to idolize Newbury. Molly, being ignorant of the way writer’s rooms, professional comedy, and television works, shakes things up–first by accident, and later, on purpose. This eventually creates both character drama and workplace drama as Molly tries to navigate this world as an outsider.
Speaking from my own perspective as someone who generally likes Kaling but has never found deep resonance with her work, this was the kind of low-impact comedy that is great to enjoy after a long workday or a date night. And that’s a great thing. When so much of our pop culture is asking us to invest in mass destruction and dystopia, Late Night was a refreshing change of pace. My affection is also bolstered by the fact that the film gave me low-key The Devil Wears Prada vibes and that I would probably take a bullet for Emma Thompson. So your mileage may vary, of course. While Late Night certainly plays it on the safe side, sometimes it’s nice to feel safe.
Late Night opens in Philly theaters this evening.