“I wrote it for Emma Thompson, and I really think only she could’ve played this part,” screenwriter and co-star Mindy Kaling confessed in a post-screening Q&A, “which is probably one of the stupider things you can do as a screenwriter, is tether your movie to the only person who can play it and hope that they can. A person I did not know! So I was just this creep in my home writing a fan fiction movie for me and Emma Thompson, a woman I don’t know, and hoping she would one day read it and do it. So this is actually, I’m sure there are tons of aspiring writers out there — you can do that. You can be that creepy person, and sometimes it works out.”
Kaling stars as Molly, brought into Katherine’s all-white, all-male writer’s room as a barely veiled “diversity hire.” As Molly, Kaling harnesses her considerable charisma and gift for charming naiveté; as Katherine tells her, “your earnestness can be very hard to be around.” Their duet scenes are the heart of the picture, and while each makes the expected transition — Molly becomes a savvy writer who can hold her own in the room (even against her boss), while Katherine figures out how to soften and be more herself on air — those transitions are done with panache. The script’s other pairings are equally inspired; it’s fun to watch Thompson and Amy Ryan (as the head of the network, keen to show Katherine the door) go at each other, and the comfy, lived-in scenes concerning her marriage to John Lithgow are lovely. (It is telling, and perfect, that their big scene together is played on a stage.)
The punchlines fly in Kaling’s script, sometimes too cleanly and quickly — it’s sharp and funny, yes, and also very clearly the work of a TV-trained writer. But that’s not always a bad thing: Late Night is wonderfully sharp when targeting (not infrequently) the cringe-inducing play-date nature of the most successful late night shows at the moment (summarized, most succinctly, as “Kevin Hart on a Slip ‘N Slide”), and those who’ve read Jason Zinoman’s excellent David Letterman biography will recognize the logistics of working for of a talk-show host who’s grown so disengaged and isolated, they haven’t ever met some of their writers.
And the movie gets, to a great extent, how modern media works — the kinds of things that go viral, how they’re reported, then reframed and think-pieced (right down to the Vulture hed that calls Katherine “Your Least Favorite Aunt”). And, Kaling being Kaling, the tiny pop culture touches are bang-on. (My favorite: a teen vampire series called Van Helsing Prep.) Nisha Ganatra’s direction isn’t terribly inspired — it’s a lot of standard shot-shot-reaction stuff — but she’s good with her actors, and paces the picture well, even if the needle-drops and score keep smothering her scenes.
Late Night is smarter than that. It may be a longer and more sincere 30 Rock, but there’s some pretty heady stuff about “diversity hires” and workplace inequality in what has always been and remains a very straight-white-male-centric world; Kaling knows how to address these issues without turning the movie into a polemic, how to touch on this stuff but still get the laugh. And clearly, it works.
“This is a movie about being a real outsider and a fan of things,” she explained in her Q&A, “and I have seen so many great movies about young fans of comedy who are young white men, you see that story a lot. And when you don’t see yourself represented in a film, you just start to bond with whoever is up there.” So now, maybe, she can be that entry point: “The world is changing so quickly, and I really am an optimist at heart, and I really have faith.”
Late Night screens this week at the Sundance Film Festival. It was purchased by Amazon Studios for, presumably, release later this year. (All photos: Jason Bailey / Flavorwire)