“You need to stop being such a pussy,” a prominent male TV writer tells Mindy Kaling’s hand-wringing newbie Molly Patel at a crucial moment in Late Night. “That was incredibly offensive,” Molly replies. “Well, it was also true,” he says.
This exchange got a big laugh from my preview audience, and although I didn’t find myself laughing along, I could see how every piece of the joke was carefully chosen to work: it points to the casual misogyny of the traditional writers’ room, prods at the easy-to-offend attitude of Molly and women like her, and settles on the idea that at the end of the day, they’re both probably a little bit “right.” Also, that “pussy” is a funny word.
Late Night is peppered with moments like this, moments where Molly tries to speak her mind, take up space, and go against the grain, but her male colleagues still get to land the punchline. They’re funny, and she’s pushy—probably because she was an amateur when hired, set up to fail. While I’d like to think this is entirely commentary on the existing dynamic in many writers’ rooms today (and certainly, this is the foremost “point” the movie tries to make—women don’t usually get a platform to be funny), I can’t shake the feeling that these jokes were written to please an audience that’s entirely comfortable with the status quo.
The comedy seems to strive for more than kowtowing jokes—it just doesn’t let itself fully go there. The direction from Nisha Ganatra, script by Kaling, and performances from the film’s star-studded cast are all at odds with one another, forming a checks-and-balances system that keeps the whole from actually saying something. Any edginess is tempered by slick glamour, any open, existential questions tied up with neat bows. And in the end, everyone’s just part of the gang—with gender and racial imbalance seemingly erased with the wave of a wand. By making Molly as mockable as the men she’s up against, Late Night pulls its punches, resulting in a movie that’s half-funny, half-challenging, and half-interesting.
So what’s the half that works? Emma Thompson. Unsurprisingly, the formidable actress and her characteristic wit have found their perfect match in Katherine Newbury, the once-great comedian and talk show host at the heart of Late Night. Newbury is cool on a good day, cold on a bad one, and funny as all hell—but she’s gotten lazy, and her poor ratings reflect just how little she seems to care about her audience. She disdains social media, prefers hosting guests like Doris Kearns-Goodwin over Hollywood actresses, and has staffed a writers room full of legacy-hire white men she doesn’t even know. She seems to be the only woman in late night, which is more than can be said of our actual universe, but it isn’t enough. Early in the film, showrunner Brad (Denis O’Hare) tells her she “hates women” (an idea that’s more complicated and probing than Late Night seems to have time for), cementing Katherine’s desire to hire a woman writer.
This quick and obvious exposition brings newcomer Molly Patel in the door, and her ensuing back-and-forth with Katherine—which is simultaneously about power, comedy, gender, race, and friendship—is by far the best thing Late Night has to offer. Imagine The Devil Wears Prada, but in an industry that isn’t dying. Kaling plays Molly with the kind of drive that’s typical of romantic comedy heroines, but with an edge of deep, justified anger that that makes her a worthy sparring partner for Katherine, and a real human being. Thompson brings an even greater level of anger, insecurity, and vulnerability to Katherine, a woman struggling with the possibility of losing her show and only sense of purpose—as well as her husband Walter (an excellent John Lithgow), a star pianist who’s fighting cancer. We see her at her highest and her lowest, and each moment is breathtaking—if the space in between them wasn’t filled with rom-com cliche and half-jokes about Molly working at a factory, Late Night could actually be great.
No, I’m not calling this a rom-com on accident. Although the romantic trajectory of Molly and writers’ room bad boy Charlie (Hugh Dancy, looking much too old for this role but fine as always) doesn’t play out in a Nora Ephron fashion, the relationship between Molly and Katherine is so clearly one of platonic love. They bicker, they fall for each other, they break up, and they get back together—they even get a Maggie Rogers backtrack and a ton of incredibly stylish outfits. It would all be a lot warmer and more moving if it wasn’t so slick and tidy, but Late Night aims to please.