Mindy Kaling‘s “Late Night” is more woke than funny, but still an interesting not-quite-deep dive into the nuts and bolts of late night TV.
It’s proof that if the Great Emma Thompson could not save “Men in Black: International,” she can still carry a star vehicle in which she’s not ostensibly the star.
The outspoken comic Kaling uses this genial but uneven comedy as a dart board on which to score piercing points about old boy/frat boy networking, “token” diversity hires, the double-standards of sexism and the importance of telling your personal truth in comedy.
Which is to say, the picture wears its feminine sensibilities with pride.
Thompson is Katherine Newberry, the 27-year vet of late night, a British comic who got to stick around hosting a lot longer than Craig Ferguson, or James Corden is likely to.
But despite her declared pursuit of “excellence,” her aloof, uncompromising pose and her nightly sign-off — “I hope I earned the privilege of your time.” — her every gesture and utterance mutters “out of touch” and “frosty” and “about to get fired.”
She won’t take calls from the new network president (Amy Ryan), won’t bother to learn her writing staff by name, won’t cozy up to the audience.
She’s Letterman, and the deeper we get into the movie, the more obvious it seems.
An opening scene where she drolly dismisses a writer she’s firing with a self-righteous blast at sexism in the workplace gets her an earful of “You hate women,” which might be why none have ever written for her.
An edict to “Hire a woman” turns into “Hire ANY woman,” and that would be the not-really funny chemical plant “quality control” worker, Molly (Kaling). She got the job interview by playing the corporate chain of command game (the factory is owned by the same conglomerate as the network). She has no comedy writing experience, zero qualifications for the job.
Yay. She got it. The American meritocracy works!
Kaling’s scripted way of overcoming our natural skepticism for this minority-jumped-to the-front-of-the-hiring -line is that the other “Tonight” writers (Hugh Dancy, Max Casella and Reid Scott among them) got their jobs on equally dubious terms.
Katherine may go on the record saying “Comedy is the last meritocracy,” but Kaling’s out to show that no, it isn’t. Molly isn’t funny, and the frat-house writer’s room she’s joining is filled with nothing but guys, just as mediocre, but “experienced.”
They’re all doomed, because the show these slackers are scripting is failing — dull monologues, an unpleasant host (Letterman again) the audience can’t warm up to, a dated program hosted by a woman with no sufferance for fools, and no Twitter account.
New gal Molly tries “quality control” tough love. The shrew hostess won’t even let her writers on the stage where the show takes place, along with not knowing any of their names. She gives them “numbers” when she realizes she needs them and still can’t deign to embrace their humanity.
The new “token” gets humiliated, weeps in the bathroom and weeps some more under her desk. She doesn’t belong.
“You have barely earned the right to be in awe!”
But Molly gets just enough encouragement to speak her mind and state the obvious holes in Katherine’s TV persona.
Events contrive to either seal Katherine’s fate — there’s a hot stand-up (Ike Barinholtz, whose material here wouldn’t get him on Comedy Central, much less HBO) in the wings, ready to take over “Tonight” — or drive her salvation. Think “viral.”
“Late Night” veers between plausible and fascinating — this corner of TV is ALWAYS promoting unlikely “stars” to the front of the line based on little merit and a hunch (think Trevor Noah and Conan, for starters) — and female wish fulfillment fantasy.
Since most comedies, romantic and otherwise (there’s a hint of that here, which shows up just often enough to feel as though more was there and it was edited out) are like “Long Shot,” male wish fulfillment fantasies, that’s fair.
When Kaling’s Molly answers a cutting hint of being a “token” minority hire with how relieved she is that “the funniest, most qualified person” got hired — it may be the film’s biggest laugh.
Yeah, one jerk wanted his brother brought on staff, and that same jerk got his job because his dad used to be a comedy writer. But Molly? She’s not funny, not qualified, just “woke” and pro-diversity and given to giving tough-love truths to Katherine that nobody else will utter.
Yes, you’re the only woman with a network late night show. Make menopause jokes. None of your competition can. Get more personal, more political. Still, Molly’s more a critic than a comic, doing “quality control” at a broken TV program.
There are stand-up bits scattered through the film, none of which impress.
The supporting cast –aside from John Lithgow as Katherine’s sickly, supportive and sweet husband — is meant to remind us of the writer’s room in “30 Rock.” Not one of the people cast in these roles — white males — is funny. Not one.
In Judd Apatow’s “Frat Pack” comedies, “the best joke on the set, wins” and gets in the movie. Funny people are cast to play funny characters and improvise a polish to the script.
Was Kaling too threatened to try that? Because Tina Fey wasn’t.
I am fascinated enough by the subject matter and kept pulling myself onto the fence about “Late Night” as it unfolded. Thompson is in her glory, after all.
But Kaling and director Nisha Ganatra (TV’s “Transparent”) never let this picture take flight. It comes closest when it mimics traditional “Working Girl” story beats, but then stubbornly wrenches itself into unfunny scenes in unfunny directions, just to break formula.
There’s one brilliant bit that she comes up with, a gimmick for the show that turns up in the “bring a failing program back from the dead” montage. But that’s just a “bit.”
There are laughs, here and there, and bursts of fun. But picking over one’s notes and picking apart a picture which offers no real third act surprises (Well, Seth Meyers shows up.) and not an over-abundance of laughs, one is left grasping at the depressingly obvious moral to the tale.
Why should privileged, mediocre whites get all the breaks, with so many eager and just as mediocre minorities dying for the chance?
I’m happy Kaling got to make her movie, cast it and give a woman a chance to direct it. Did she and they deliver? Not often enough.
Monocultures are echo chambers, a deathly failing for any media enterprise — late night comedy show, action franchise or NPR. That point is driven home.
But for such a woke comedy, “Late Night’s” a bit of a snoozer.
MPAA Rating:R for language throughout and some sexual references
Cast: Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, John Lithgow, Hugh Dancy, Reid Scott, Max Casella and Ike Barinholtz
Credits: Directed by Nisha Ganatra, script by Mindy Kaling. An Amazon Studios release.
Running time: 1:42