More a strongly femme Broadcast News and less The Devil Wears Prada, new comedy Late Night offers a look at the challenges of working on a comedy talk show while female, and to hilarious effect. Written by Mindy Kaling, directed by Nisha Ganatra, and starring Kaling and Patron Saint of Smart Women in Film Emma Thompson, the female gaze is all over this cast and crew, and it shows.
Late night talk show host Katherine Newbury (Thompson) has been coasting on stale jokes crafted by her all male staff of writers for so long, it has effected her ratings, and threatened her future with the show. Enter hyper-earnest fledgling comedy writer, and longtime Katherine Newbury fan Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling), a diversity hire who can’t help but shake things up.
She is a young woman of color making suggestions and speaking truths to both the entrenched boys club that is the writing team, and the older, wasp-y Brit Katherine. Sparks both good and bad ignite. Will she fearlessly help raise the bar, or go down without a fight? The answer is both.
The representation in Late Night of the hostility a woman of color faces working with an all male, all white staff probably doesn’t show just how bad it can be, even today, but it certainly gets the point across. It’s a miracle Kaling could bring humor to making that point. Interviews of female filmmakers in advance of my Women Rocking Hollywood panel at San Diego Comic-Con often go no further than one-on-one conversations. They are too dark. We choose to focus on women’s future projects, rather than the daily abuse heaped on them by men and even some women in the film industry. Kaling’s writing captures spot-on the frequency of micro-aggressions, and the almost pervasive condescension inherent in being a woman working in that environment.
Writer Kaling and director Ganatra create and mine the beats that lead to comedic success, with no small help from Thompson’s deadpan delivery, and commitment to Newbury’s emotional arc. As portrayed, she is not wholly good or bad, but certainly completely formed as a character. This is more impressive than it sounds. How often can that be said about lead female characters over 40? The answer is not often enough.
One interesting aspect of this film is the idea that Newbury is a successful woman who hates women. There is an old paradigm of women in business taking their walking and talking points from the misogynistic men they work for, or that hired or inspired them. Within the context of this comedy, Newbury, a successful businesswoman who has played the game the old way as often as necessary, redefines how she operates. She does so with the help of a woman who believes it is possible to be collaborative, inclusive, and supportive and still succeed. This is a powerful message that will resonate with working women, who haven’t seen themselves or their philosophies reflected nearly enough onscreen.
Did I mention it’s funny? So funny, indeed, that Amazon Studios bought the rights for it for $13 million, the most ever for a US-only distribution deal, at the Sundance Film Festival. They know a winner when they see one, and so will you.
4 out of 5 stars