It’s a long-running joke that women can’t seem to win or keep a late night gig. For a while there, it seemed like only men whose names began with “J” could win the role. Thus, it becomes that much more satisfying to watch Late Night, a funny and touching story about a woman running a late night show for decades, with both good and bad consequences.
Our legendary host is Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson), decorated leader of Tonight with Katherine Newbury. It’s an open secret that the show’s been on the decline for a decade, with Katherine coasting along and a writers room full of men that do the bare minimum. When Katherine learns that the network president (Amy Ryan) is set on replacing her with a younger male comic, she goes into high gear to save her show, jostled awake with help from her first female writer, Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling).
Labeled the diversity hire, with no previous experience in comedy writing, Molly has a lot to prove. Even reading all the articles on the google results for “how to make a good first impression”, she can’t seem to gel with her coworkers or her boss. Thankfully, she’s got an ace up her sleeve. She’s a huge fan of Katherine’s and knows the show so well that she can point out what’s not working, and what strengths Katherine should be capitalizing on.
Molly and Katherine are excellent foils, and Kaling and Thompson have great banter and chemistry that keeps the film engaging. Whereas Katherine is known for masculine pantsuits, intellectual guests and ever-present scowl, Molly earnestly comes to work in dresses and advocates for using femininity and social media to boost Katherine’s comedy. It’s a handy device to examine the two schools of thought regarding women in the workplace — are we one of the guys or do we see our female qualities as strengths?
Late Night, written by Kaling, is not exactly a never-stop-laughing romp but has enough laugh-out-loud one-liners to keep you hooked. The second half takes a more serious turn, with our leads turning introspective and contemplative of their respective careers and the toll it can take on their personal lives. Much like Kaling’s other work, it’s clear she believes women can be feminine and funny, emotional and strong leaders. Outside of gender, it also highlights another common theme in her work — that enthusiasm does not have to be a negative quality. In a business that seems to tout cynicism, Molly is unafraid to turn her gleeful obsession with Katherine Newbury into a strength as an expert on the show and the comedian.
While the last act tends to drag and lose its sense of humor, Late Night is an engaging and funny workplace comedy, due in no small part to the chemistry of its leads. And who knows? Maybe making a movie where a woman can hold a late night job for decades will help make it a reality in our world.