Given Mindy Kaling’s standing as a woman of color with an established career in television — as an actress and a producer/creator — one might think that Late Night would be a slam dunk. Working from her own screenplay, Kaling plays Molly, a young, aspiring comedian who lands a job as a writer on Late Night with Katherine Newbury, a once popular but now low-rated evening talk show. Will Molly fight adversity and become a valuable member of the team? Will she break through and form a friendship with the icy, demanding, heartless Newbury (Emma Thompson, doing her best Meryl Streep impression)? Will she learn that some men are heartless womanizers, but eventually manage to find a nice guy? Reader, if you don’t instantly know the answers to these questions, then you’ve most certainly never seen a movie before. Late Night‘s writing leans into the cutesy, ‘aw shucks’ quality of Kaling’s performance; and as director, Nisha Ganatra does nothing with the material. There’s no insight into how a writer’s room actually works, or the nuts and bolts of producing a successful late night talk show. Thompson does what she can, but she has less a character arc and more a ‘changing because the screenplay needs her to’-type role. Kaling’s screenplay is filled with easy, empty platitudes, and pat one liners. Late Night isn’t so much a movie as it is a season of a sitcom compressed into 90 minutes, easily digested and seemingly constructed in a lab in such a way as to not offend.
Reader, if you don’t instantly know the answers to these questions, then you’ve most certainly never seen a movie before.
Calling something a sitcom isn’t necessarily a bad thing; Tina Fey and 30 Rock and The Office (which Kaling used to be a cast member on) were consistent laugh generators, and even occasionally stretched the boundaries of an otherwise staid form. But here, conflicts are introduced and quickly solved, usually with a montage. Characters change and grow and learn, usually with a montage. People learn harsh life lessons, usually with a montage. And everything has a happy ending, with a little bow on top and a matching pop song on the soundtrack. Kaling wants to comment on seemingly every issue she can think of — women, particularly women of color, in comedy, Me-Too and sexism, tokenism and PC culture, and industry nepotism — and does so badly. There’s simply no time to actually talk about any of this, with real insight, without first breaking the sitcom form that the film is trapped in. Who is this movie for? It has its heart in the right place, but is so haphazardly executed that giving it a pass solely on good will is indulging in the same lowest common denominator baseline that the film wants to (politely) rail against. Given the dearth of racial and gender diversity in the film industry, the fact that Kaling can get a movie made from a script she wrote, and star in it, is certainly a positive — but innocuous pablum like Late Night helps no one. Instead, the film simply illustrates that anyone can make a crappy movie.