Late Night digests systemic sexism, spews it out in Technicolor yawn

Movie Review: Late Night

Mindy Kaling creates a scrapbook of comic experience about what it’s like to be a feminist pioneer in a male-dominated environment and miraculously finds humour where a tough nugget of tragedy persists.

Late Night

3.5/5

Starring: Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, Hugh Dancy, John Lithgow, Denis O’Hare, Amy Ryan,  Ike Barinholtz, Reid Scott, Max Casella, Paul Walter Hauser

Directed by: Nisha Ganatra

Rating: PG-13

Running time: 102 minutes

Opens wide June 15, 2019

By Katherine Monk

Mindy Kaling writes what she knows. And the woman knows comedy: She was the first “woman of colour” to write for The Office. She developed her own show, The Mindy Project, and wrote two bestselling books. As a result, she also knows all the calcified layers of sexism that form the crux of the stand-up comics’ world — and the extended universe of scripted sit-coms.

Late Night digests all this knowledge and experience, and spews it out in a technicolour yawn that is as much an act of catharsis as it is a symptom of environmental toxicity. It’s why the movie almost begins with a bitter aftertaste the moment we meet our star, Emma Thompson, playing the celebrity talk show host Katherine Newberry.

Stuck up and snarky, Katherine has lost the joy of being with people. Fame brought too many sycophants and vampires, and now she’s isolated in the Gramercy Park brownstone she shares with her husband (John Lithgow). She’s not the witty and relatable late night force she once was, and now, though receiving countless awards, her network is looking to replace her with a younger, crasser, frat boy with five o’ clock shadow.

Late Night digests all this knowledge and experience, and spews it out in a technicolour yawn that is as much an act of catharsis as it is a symptom of environmental toxicity. It’s why the movie almost begins with a bitter aftertaste the moment we meet our star, Emma Thompson, playing the celebrity talk show host Katherine Newberry.

We only find this out halfway through the film, but we’re not morons. Kaling tips her hand the minute we meet Katherine — a cross between Meryl Streep in the Devil Wears Prada and Craig Ferguson, wearing Ellen Degeneres’s clothes. We’re not supposed to like her because she fires someone in the first scene, and she’s mean about it.

Yet, there is truth in every remark she makes as she dissects the entitlement of the man standing before her, asking for a raise because “he’s a family man.” So we don’t like her, but we kind of respect her for cutting to the chase, and yanking the base of the man’s ego.

It’s this sense of mingled awe and dread that draws Molly (Mindy Kaling) to Katherine as a role-model, and eventually — through a series of all-too-contrived plot devices — as an employee.

The scene that ushers in this life-altering change for Molly, who previously worked at a chemical plant, is one of many that feels like a dramatic recreation of something that actually happened to Kaling — perhaps over the course of her internship on the Conan O’Brien incarnation of Late Night.

Molly is applying for a job as a writer on Katherine’s show, and every one in the waiting room is a guy. One is the head writer’s brother. The lingering pan around the room that lands back on Molly’s face is director Nisha Ganatra’s shorthand way of playing “One of These Things Doesn’t Belong.” As women, we assume we’re a part of the world, until we realize we aren’t.

These moments of pure, feminine insight are what make Late Night more than a relatively predictable assembly of comic set-ups, human observation and Hollywood cliche. They offer a scrapbook of personal experience of what it’s like to be a pioneer on the front lines of feminism, where no one is likely to help you out — and everyone is willing to tear you down.

These moments of pure, feminine insight are what make Late Night more than a relatively predictable assembly of comic set-ups, human observation and Hollywood cliche. They offer a scrapbook of personal experience of what it’s like to be a pioneer on the front lines of feminism, where no one is likely to help you out — and everyone is willing to tear you down.

The dynamic between the two women is where this theme really evolves, because while Late Night points out systemic sexism (in the waiting room scene and writers room scenes), it doesn’t lay the blame on men. Kaling is more interested in the enablers and consensus seekers who perpetuate the status quo.

In this case, the people with the most power are women — Katherine Newberry (Thompson), talk show host, and Caroline (Amy Ryan), network executive. Katherine and Caroline do not get along. Nor do Katherine and Molly. The female relationships feel broken, hence the nugget of tragedy — and the desire for more comic fluff to couch the tension.

The female relationships feel broken, hence the nugget of tragedy — and the desire for more comic fluff to couch the tension.

Kaling isolates some of the lumps that women live with, but she doesn’t beat them out — lest she lose the comic loft. The movie wants to make us happy, so it delivers the requisite happy ending and a central epiphany: Be honest to who you are, be able to laugh at yourself, and open your ears to a different voice.

Nice. Nice. Nice. Right? Yet, because Late Night featured such a complex character in Katherine, and such a capable actor in Emma Thompson, the movie probably could have gone a few floors deeper into the dungeons of our dated ideas. Kaling could have used the torch she found as a TV pioneer to guide us through the labyrinth of feminine identity and motivation.

…Because Late Night featured such a complex character in Katherine, and such a capable actor in Emma Thompson, the movie probably could have gone a few floors deeper into the dungeons of our dated ideas.

You can’t blame her for keeping it closer to the surface. After all, it’s what we expect. It may also be what we want. But if the larger point of this movie was embracing diversity and difference, you’d think it would feel different — instead of yet another amusing tour of the trenches from a female point of view.

@katherinemonk

Main image: Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling star in Late Night. Courtesy of Amazon Studios/ Entertainment One.
THE EX-PRESS, June 17, 2019

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Review: Late Night

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3.5Score

Mindy Kaling creates a scrapbook of comic experience about what it’s like to be a feminist pioneer in a male-dominated environment and miraculously finds humour where a tough nugget of tragedy persists. - Katherine Monk

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