Remember that prickly late night female comedian who was on the air so long she lost touch with the meme-making agenda of modern media? Oh, you don’t? Right, because that person didn’t exist. So Mindy Kaling had to invent that character in Katherine Newbury, who is brilliantly played by Emma Thompson in the poignant new comedy Late Night.
This two-hander chronicles the adventures of Molly Patel (played by Kaling), a young Indian-American diversity hire who shakes up Newbury’s ratings-starved show. After her attempts to woo her co-writers with cupcakes fall flat, Molly begins to win Newbury over by writing unflinchingly feminine jokes about abortion and menopause—which are way outside of the purview of the previously all-white-male writers’ room—for Newbury’s staid monologues. Molly shows Newbury that her perspective as an outsider can be wielded to her benefit, something that Kaling and Ganatra, both of Indian descent, have done in their own careers.
Newbury has elected not to have children or even many friends in order to climb to the top, a choice that most men never have to make. Now, she is at the point in her career where she is evaluating her legacy as her days in late night television dwindle before her. As Thompson said in a Variety interview, “It’s a political piece without banging you over the head with its message.”
Anyone who has attended a Hollywood industry party in the last several years has heard gripes from male writers and directors who have claimed that their jobs have been lost to women and people of color. Kaling pokes fun at these assertions with snappy dialogue from the slew of mostly well-meaning dudes, some of whom are legacy hires, while showing us the experiences of characters who fight daily against this stereotype. And she does so with deft comedy and three-dimensional characters.
While the main thrust of the movie could be described as a platonic rom-com disguised as a workplace comedy between the two women, a subplot involving the #MeToo movement and how it plays out slightly differently with women in power, marks this as a thoroughly modern conversation starter that looks at the beloved genre from a different vantage point.
Meryl Branch-McTiernan is a comedic screenwriter and fiction writer based in Los Angeles and New York trying to get some words out to ears and eyeballs. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Stony Brook University.