Late Night Review
Mindy Kaling knows what it’s like to be the only woman in the room. Her breakthrough as a writer came when she was hired to join the writing team for the US Office, only to discover that she was the only woman on the show’s writing staff. Although now a celebrated writer and comic actress in her own right, the spectre of being perceived as a “diversity hire” in a room full of white men still weighs heavily on her screenplay for Late Night. Bringing the semi-autobiographical story forward 15 years and transplanting it into a different writing room only highlights that many of the same obstacles that stop female comedy writers achieving success remain firmly in place. So why does it feel like her screenplay is consistently pulling its punches in analysing this?
In the hands of director Nisha Ganatra, who boarded the project after Paul Feig jumped off, Late Night frequently softens its cynicism towards the nepotistic world of the writer’s room in the hope of becoming a crowd pleasing success. Commentary on the very nature of being a “diversity hire” and even the workplace dynamics between employer and employees in the post-MeToo era have been watered down so they feel meaningless, reduced to mere plot beats as the film increasingly transforms into a TV industry soap opera in the final half hour. This could have been a powerful, angry film with something to say about the current state of comedy. Instead, in its attempts to become a broad crowdpleaser, it safely settles for the middle of the road, refusing to get close to any thematic material that could be perceived as political.
Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) has been on the air for three decades, and as the only female late night talk show host, is widely considered a comedy pioneer. However, her ratings have been in a sharp decline for years, and is largely oblivious to the nosedive in quality that has taken place due to her current, all male writing team. In the need to hire a woman, she recruits Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling), a chemical plant worker who has only got an interview after winning an essay writing competition. After a shaky start, where she earns the condescension of her colleagues, she eventually becomes the breath of fresh air the show needs - but Katherine’s career is still under threat, as the executives want to replace her with a frat boy comedian she despises (Ike Barinholtz).
It seems lazy to claim that the central problem with a comedy is that it isn’t funny, but here, the lack of solid gags makes it hard to suspend disbelief. There is no difference in quality between the material Katherine Newbury performs that produces groans from the onscreen characters, and the material that fuels rapturous laughter and applause; Emma Thompson has winning comic timing and a skill at delivering savage one-liners when the character is offstage, but onstage, even the material the film wants to convince us is “edgy” is defined by a lack of risk. I have a feeling that Thompson might agree with me, as her character’s stage persona is incredibly wooden, only springing to life when she steps off it. But I don’t think the film buys the idea that she’s lacking a comic spark in the way Thompson perceives.
One of the film’s big plot points revolves around her unease with doing political gags, one of the moments that makes it glaringly obvious that this film was written in a pre-Trump era, before every TV host made political humour their bread and butter. That her political gags are written to appear edgy onscreen, but written in a way so as to not offend anybody watching Late Night, is distractingly apparent. A more cynical film would have used this to make a comment on the compromised nature of writing jokes for appease a broad audience, but Late Night is a film lacking bite, and as a result fails to persuade the audience why its central figure is such a charismatic comic presence, or why she would suddenly become a relevant public figure once again by performing such toothless material.
Even the smaller details of how the audience consumes celebrity culture feels out of touch; when a YouTube star storms off the chat show after responding badly to a joke, it’s the host who is subject to media scrutiny - when in real life, every time a celebrity has stormed off a chat show, it is the celebrity who has been rightfully subjected to piss taking for their holier-than-thou attitude. Kaling was an intern on Conan O’Brien’s chat show in the early '00s, her only experience within the world portrayed here, and it’s clear that there has been no attempt to research the stark differences in today’s late night talk shows from her one experience behind the scenes nearly two decades prior.
Late Night opens nationwide in UK cinemas today.