Never mind blue genies and superpowered mutants and talking household pets. Here’s a real cinematic fantasy for ya: Imagine a world wherein a woman has been the host of a late-night talk show on a major American television network for 28 years. What a flight of fancy!
That’s the underlying premise of Late Night, and the 28-year-veteran of late-night TV is played by Emma Thompson… who is, to be fair, exactly the sort of woman who should have been enjoying such a long comedic tenure in America’s sleepytimeslot. The overlying premise is that, in an attempt to get her ratings mojo back and save her job — which the network is threatening to hand over to a truly awful younger male comic who is not worthy to lick her boots — Thompson’s Katherine Newbury hires a new writer who is the first to break the white-male wall of blandness that is her writers’ room.
That new writer is Mindy Kaling’s Molly Patel, who seems like she might be a not-very-disguised version of Kaling’s real self: whip-smart, funny as hell, sharp writer, unflaggingly enthusiastic, adorable as a rambunctious kitten, strong as flint. (Kaling wrote the script here, so I feel like maybe this suspicion of mine is not a stretch.)
Put these two deliciously entertaining performers together playing characters who are oil-and-water to each other… and of course I love Late Night so much. Here are two unique, distinct women — such a rarity onscreen! — taking center stage in a comedy that grapples with what it means to be a woman in a male-dominated workplace, in a male-dominated field, in ways that are often witheringly funny and, even better, keenly skewering. Late Night is a whole lotta fun, but it’s also a movie we need right now: to show men what it means to be a woman on the outside (my dudes! see this movie! it’s not just for chicks!), and to show women how to be better allies to other women (because some women do need to hear that).
Because… Katherine is a bit of a bitch. Which is great, because real women can be bitches, often with plenty good reason, and it also means that Thompson can have a ball with her, and she is; Thompson (Missing Link, Johnny English Strikes Again) is hilariously perfect at making you want to punch Katherine (until later you want to hug her). And this is great, too, because it’s not wrong that being a bitch is what it has taken for a woman like her to get where she is. And it’s not inaccurate to depict her as emblematic of what happens to the first woman to break into a boys’ club: she has to become a part of that club, not a feminist rabblerouser, lest she let the men down by demonstrating what an uncool party pooper she is. (Men must never ever be made to feel uncomfortable! All women know this.)
Molly gets hired literally because Katherine yelled at her producer Brad (the low-key awesome and always underutilized Denis O’Hare: Big Little Lies, The Town That Dreaded Sundown) at just the right moment to hire a woman. Molly has no experience in comedy, just an affinity for it and a massive fangirl crush on Katherine. She is unabashedly a “diversity hire”… even though we can readily presume that more than one of the white men on Katherine’s writing staff also got their jobs because of favors and connections, and not out of any demonstrable worth (indeed, we see that this was probably about to happen again absent Molly’s showing up). Having Molly fully embrace her awareness of why she got hired allows the movie to also embrace, full on, the knowledge that of course she has to work twice as hard as her white-male colleagues to prove her worth. Women always do, no matter what. Meanwhile, white men never ever notice the white-male affirmative action that is always at work on their behalf.
And so we get the laugh-until-you-cry spectacles — most women will recognize these — of Molly sobbing in her office and Molly sobbing in the restroom (which the men have taken over because there have been no women on staff to use it), because her dream job is more stressful than it should be, than it would be if she were a white man; of Molly trying to forge working relationships with men who resent her (and also finding some unexpected allies among them; #NotAllMen, y’all). But there are also laugh-until-you-cry spectacles for Katherine, too: one razor-edged bit sees her getting back to her stand-up–comedy roots, pulling an entirely off-the-cuff performance out of her ass on the spur of the moment. It’s really funny, mostly because it’s so raw and honest about women’s experiences, not filtered through her white-male writers, and comes without the pressures of ratings or corporate-entertainment conformity. And also because it is in aid of a charity effort that is important to Molly; this is Katherine coming to realize that it is her duty — yes, her duty — as a woman who has gotten up the ladder first to help the women coming up behind her.
Everything about Late Night is simply amazing, in a soft-pedal way, from the fact that Kaling (Ocean’s Eight, The Night Before) wrote it and that it’s directed by another brown woman, Nisha Ganatra, to how it is funny about diversity and about breaking down bigotry (yes, this is possible; SJWs aren’t humorless Debbie-downers). The terrific supporting male cast deserves kudos too, for being willing to stand aside while making the women look good: Ike Barinholtz (The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part, Blockers) as (brilliantly) the awful male comic; John Lithgow (Pet Sematary, Pitch Perfect 3) as Katherine’s husband (who is, as women in movies so often are, defined solely as The Spouse); and, as a few of the men in the writers’ room, Max Casella (Live by Night, Wild Card), Hugh Dancy (Hannibal, Hysteria), and Reid Scott (Venom, Home Again). We have to move The Movies to a point where male actors are okay shoring up female-centered stories.
Yes, this is me doing my bit for the Men Must Never Ever Be Made To Feel Uncomfortable campaign. Men who want to prove that they’re one of the #NotAllMen can just throw a lot of money at Late Night and demonstrate how secure in their masculinity they are.
viewed during the 2019 Sundance London film festival
Late Night is the Alliance of Women Film Journalists’ Movie of the Week for June 21st. Read the comments from AWFJ members — including me — on why the film deserves this honor.