The idea that we can modernize familiar narrative tropes is something that Hollywood always strives in achieving. After all, why change a formula that has been working so well, and making money, on audiences since the beginning of time when you could just freshen it up for contemporary audiences, whose sensibilities, let’s be frank haven’t changed all that much. Please keep in mind that in the millions of years the homosapien has lived on this planet, their DNA has barely changed, nor has their way of responding to triggers which prompt the usual emotional reactions.
“Late Night” seems to take pride with the fact that it is different than all the other romcoms that have come before it, mostly due to the inclusive casting of the always affectionate Mindy Kailing, and the fact that its jokes are primarily targeted at white males. In other words, this is a very 2019 kind-of-movie.
Dealing with Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) a legendary late-night talk-show host, whose glory days are long past their expiration date, “Late Night” posits to tell the story of a female celebrity with the reputation of being a “woman who hates women.” Hampered down by her reputation, she decides to put affirmative action to good use and hire an American-Indian woman as part of her writing team. Molly (Kaling) is hired to be part of Katherine’s all-male writers’ room and tasked to save the show from its low ratings and inevitable cancellation. Molly knows she’s a diversity hire, her background isn’t in comedy but rather working in a factory and the occasional open mic standup appearance at her neighborhood, but, judge by her sheer obsession with social media, she knows what audiences want.
Director Nisha Ganatra sees Molly as a disruptor, by making her shake up the matriarchal status quo in the show. Thompson, oddly enough, isn’t miscast in the role, you actually believe she is a late night stalwart, even when the delivery of her jokes falls flat at times, but she does bring a sort of biting humor to her Katherine that compliments Kaling’s more abiding and less forceful Molly. In fact, Kaling wrote the script, which deals with white privilege, ageism and sexism in the industry. Most pertinent of all is Kaling’s tackling of how women in power are “supposed” to act, which is the kind of thing that is rarely depicted by a mainstream movie, let alone a comedy, these days.
And yet, you wish there were more nastiness, a satirical bite that is clearly missing in the pages of the script. The issues at hand are, more often than not, used as a backdrop for romcom conventions rather than the other way around. Sure, there are enjoyable moments, and Kaling proves herself to be a potential movie star if I ever saw one, but so many of the jokes fall flat due to their safeness, it doesn’t help that the script decides to add a love interest (Reid Scott) for Molly, a callous shallow head writer for the show that is oblivious to the importance of having a woman be part of the team. Blech.
Imagine a Mindy Kaling comedy without a safety net? Wouldn’t that be something? [C+]