I eagerly waited for Late Night to come out. The trailers were a hoot. The premise delightful. It utilized every trope I love: women coming together, underdog who succeeds, girl who shows the boys she’s better. Yet, while there are some glorious and funny moments in the film, ultimately it fell flat at the end, the point it matters most.
Late Night is about a young Indian woman, played by Mindy Kaling, who becomes the minority hire on an all white, all male writers team for the queen of late night, played by Emma Thompson. The show is failing, Thompson soon to be replaced, and things need to be done differently. Kaling comes in and saves the day with unflinching frankness about what is and what isn’t working on the show, turning Thompson and her career around, and enlightening her to the importance of multiculturalism at the same time.
The problem, everything is so pat. Nothing is delved into and Kaling comes off as a self-assured, very lucky, wannabe who falls into a dream job. Her background telling the occasional joke at her job at the chemical plant where she works, and even the stint as an emcee at a really small charity show, don’t make us feel as if she’s working for her chance. In fact, the charity show is for lung cancer, the disease that killed her father, and we don’t see any emotionality or connection that makes this event seem worth her convictions. When Thompson’s character insists she miss the show and keep working on the next day’s monologue, Kaling refuses to back down from a commitment based merely on Thompson’s whim. Responsibility and professionalism she has in buckets, pathos, sadly no.
We are no longer a naive audience that thinks jokes sally forth spontaneously during a comic’s performance. Instead, multiple movies about comics such as the fearless Punchline with Tom Hanks and Sally Field, or Late Shift about the battle between Leno and Letterman for the Tonight Show, or TV shows such as The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, have all taught us how difficult comedy is as career — both to do it right and to succeed.
So to have a young woman just saunter in from the street and want to be a writer, on a top show, seems unbelievable. It was also an easily corrected part of the plot. Had we seen a few flashbacks of her writing copy in her room — not just watching old reruns of Thompson — and her plodding night after night to do her own set in seedy clubs, she would have had the chops to deserve her job.
Further, Kaling’s character talks incessantly about multicultural issues — but they all seem to boil down to skin tone. When a coworker derides her apartment calling it “Indian old lady,” she immediately moves out and rents a modern space. Her values of living with relatives, or decorating in traditional ways are ridiculed and she folds instead of standing up for her cultural beliefs.
When Thompson’s character is humiliated and falls into despair, this movie that talks frequently of her character’s clinical depression, again misses an incredible opportunity. Instead of a quick pep talk and some curtains being flung open, there is no real show of kindness or nurturing on the part of Kaling. For all the talk about turning the show into something Thompson can do as woman that her male counterparts cannot, the movie forgets that women supporting women, nurturing them, getting them through, is what we all as women do best. An opportunity for these characters to bond is forever missed. When both women have encounters with the same predatory male, Kaling doesn’t even confide, “me too,” to Thompson.
The great save for this movie is Emma Thompson. Unlike Kaling’s nearly perfect, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm character whose emotional arc is negligible, Thompson’s character is a tough old broad, a comedy veteran who has earned her stripes and is nastier than a rabid dog. Thompson embraces her character and pushes it to the extreme, stopping just short of a caricature. She breathes life into this film and makes it worth seeing for her performance alone.
At the end, predictable as can be, SPOILER ALERT, all the issues Kaling wants to address are checked off in a tidy list and framed with a giant pink bow. We see Kaling guiding Thompson’s monologue and forcing her to integrate her team. But Thompson and Kaling’s characters don’t need jokes, and integration isn’t what the film is about. What they needed was an unlikely friendship to keep each from being alone. The established star mentoring the newcomer never happens.
In the great fight for equality, women cannot forget this most important part of their identity. Platitudes fall flat. Being recognized for hard work and sisterhood is what feminism is all about. Too bad Late Night forgot.