Sometimes you just have to give up your job at the chemical plant, move to New York City, and pursue your dreams of becoming a television writer. While that may sound absurd, Amazon Studios’ Late Night is the opposite. Instead, the film, written by Mindy Kaling and directed by Nisha Ganatra, takes that core synopsis and builds into an authentic story of two women in very different parts of their lives and the way they deal with real issues in a humorous way.
In Late Night, we follow the story of a failing late night show hosted by the only woman in the game, Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson). As Katherine chooses to shirk all current trends and aim for interviewing congresswomen and journalists, her show’s numbers have steadily tanked over the last decade. Her comedy has become detached and safe but she doesn’t know that she has a problem. But failing ratings isn’t Katherine’s only problem. After being called out on how she has mistreated women in her writer’s room in the past, Katherine demands a woman be hired in order to prove that she doesn’t have a woman problem. When we see the writer’s room, it’s all white and all male.
Enter, Molly (Mindy Kaling), an honest, kind, and quality analyst at a chemical plant who just so happens to love comedy. Having no television experience – or writing experience really – we learn that she won a contest to meet with any c-level employee. Instead of aiming small, Molly chooses to meet with the man in charge of the company that owns the television company, working her way into an interview. When she beats out the brother of one of the writers, we see that it’s going to be an uphill battle to earn the respect of the other writers who classify her as no more than a “diversity hire” as they work to save Katherine’s show.
As the leads, Molly and Katherine continually butt heads, as Molly’s brand of unrestrained honesty drives Katherine to look at her show and it’s failings, while also examining her own life. On the other hand, Katherine slowly shows Molly how to keep fighting, as she later faces the reality of her age and disconnection from the current state of pop culture and the latter deals with the crushing weight of having to prove that she is more than just the only woman in the room.
Late Night’s humor is on brand for what I have come to expect from Kaling’s writing. It’s sharp, it’s direct, and it delivers belly-laughs while not being afraid to toe the line between offensive and smart. Kaling’s ability to use humor to confront big issues is iconic and one of the reasons that The Mindy Show is one of the best-scripted comedies in the last 10 years. Late Night is pure unadulterated Mindy and I love it.
Through perfectly timed humor, Late Night tackles the implicit biases that women at the top have against other women, the difficulty of being a woman of color in the workplace, and the feeling of consistently being riddled with imposter syndrome because those around you see your win as a diversity win, a token for the company. For two years I was the only brown woman in my doctoral program, and what began as a triumphant moment quickly transformed into a feeling of being on the outside.
Watching this, I saw a piece of myself. For context, I was the only student waved in front of prospective students who weren’t in my track of the program, I was the token, and the grad students around me didn’t let me forget it. With an almost perfect GPA and four years on the Dean’s List, I earned my spot, but they couldn’t see that.
To watch Molly move through the world of late-night television, the only woman in the writer’s room and the only woman of color in sight, I saw myself. It was hilarious to watch on screen but then there were scenes that cut deep. Molly running to the bathroom to cry, Molly crying under her desk, Molly overworking to prove herself, I saw myself in her, minus the witty one-liners.
It was inspiring to see Molly not give up, knowing her worth, especially when my situation led me to leave academia. While Late Night focuses on female empowerment, it does so in a way that highlights the problematic nature of “white feminism” and performative action on social media. Using humor to both dilute the doses of reality while also making it home.
But the humor isn’t one note, through Katherine, Thompson executes dry humor to balance out Kaling’s empathetic brand and it works. The two play off of each other and watching their characters grow is one of the best things I’ve seen on screen this year. Thompson is hilarious in her own distinct way that puts apart from the rest of the cast. While her stoicism is used to build many if not the majority of the funniest moments of the film when contrasted with Kaling’s emotional Molly, the character of Katherine shines when she is vulnerable.
When marital issues force Katherine to deal with emotion and the smooth veneer to crack in a way the fear of losing her television show didn’t, we see Thompson’s acting range. Paired with John Lithgow as her on-screen husband, Walter, who has been suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, the two do the most emotional work of the film. Leaning on each other, embracing each other, Walter pushes Katherine while also being truthful with her. Their marriage seems idyllic in that their communication and their ability to accept each other.
When that is shattered in the third act, Kaling deals with it in a real way, delivering a few crushing moments for the audience before building them back up. Instead of leaning into over the top emotion and humor, Kaling’s script instead calls for their characters to handle it in a raw way. In truth, as much as Kaling’s over the top quirky and direct humor makes the film, it’s her ability to know when to pull back and let the moments sit in negative or heavy emotions as well that makes Late Night stand out from her other projects and other comedies as a whole.
Overall, Late Night is hilarious while also addressing real-world issues. There are a few forced moments at the very end of the film that doesn’t fit into the rest of the well-paced narrative. The ending is too perfectly tied in a bow for a film that used humor to showcase reality. In addition, my only true gripe is with the need to use a love interest to throw conflict into the plot. Granted it is refreshing to see a woman of color landing an attractive-leading-man-type in Hugh Dancy’s character, but in choosing to have Molly end up with the man who tormented her entire work life just didn’t sit well.
That being said, Late Night is a film with women behind the camera, in front of the camera, completely at the center of the story. The film is about Molly and Mindy, there are not moments where it seems otherwise and all of the comedic weight comes from the two women. But beyond that, this film isn’t just good because it has women at the center, it is good because it is thoughtful and honest and is filled with a cast of actors who have comedic chops as well as amazing chemistry.
Late Night is hilarious, authentic, inspiring, and hits all the right notes despite the rushed ending. With an R-rating, the film is able to take jokes as far as it can, pulling back when the situation calls for it but otherwise executing a special kind of humor. As Kaling’s first feature-length film, it’s a great start to what I hope is a long career behind and in front of the camera on the big screen.
Late Night opens in theaters nation wide on June 14th.
Kate is co-founder, EIC, and CCO of BWT. She’s also a Certified Rotten Tomatoes Critic, host, and creator of our flagship podcast, But Why Tho? and Did You Have To?. She also manages all PR relationships for comics, manga, film, TV, and anime. She has an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Religious Studies focusing on how pop culture impacts society.