Directed By Nisha Ganatra
Starring – Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, John Lithgow
The Plot – Katherine Newbury (Thompson) is a pioneer and legendary host on the late-night talk-show circuit. When she’s accused of being a “woman who hates women,” she puts affirmative action on the to-do list, and…..presto. Molly (Kaling) is hired as the one woman in Katherine’s all-male writers’ room. But Molly might be too little too late, as the formidable Katherine also faces the reality of low ratings and a network that wants to replace her. Molly, wanting to prove she’s not simply a diversity hire who’s disrupting the comfort of the brotherhood, is determine to help Katherine by revitalizing her show and career, and possible effect even bigger change at the same time.
Rated R for adult language throughout and some sexual references
– Best comedy of the year. As a film that is full of audience laughter and participation, this one hits it out of the park quite frequently. There’s a rich blend of varying degrees of entertaining comedy in the script, but the interaction between characters, especially that of the two female leads, conjures up several example of sharp-tongued wit and bold sarcasm, which is completely up my alley for the kind of humor that I appreciate from a comedy. The film also doesn’t stay reserved as just this, eventually evolving into this dramatic crumbling of walls from every side of Katherine’s life, which succeeds at delivering no shortage of dramatic heft, and proving once more that while comedy is the way to get the butts in the seats, it’s rich life experiences that make you invest more into the characters, and every transformation in the screenplay feels every bit as earned as it does necessary to the conflicts springing from all around.
– Wisdom in social commentary. One could expect that a film starring an Indian actress getting a job in a male caucasian dominated workplace would be full of poignancy about the uphill climb that minorities and women face when inserted into this environment, and the film does have this unapologetic stance on depicting this cold, callous world, what truly surprised me was how it speaks on both sides of the coin in this regard. The film doesn’t make Molly a flat-out victim as much as it makes her an equal in the problem of hiring, explaining to us that she was only picked in the first place to fill a workplace quota. While this could be condemning for a 21st century politically correct landscape full of sensitivity, I commend it for its honesty in valuing both sides of the debate, highlighting that we as a society are still a long way out from making it a level sided playing field for all to contend with.
– Strong characterization. What I love about the screenplay is that it very much feels episodic in the way it brings along several on-going subplots at a time, as well as values each character in frame for being someone so much more than an occasional cameo. Instead of following just Thompson and Kaling, the film values rich supporting cast members like Hugh Dancy, Dennis O’ Hare, John Lithgow, and the legions of other familiar faces that fill this board room of testosterone that a majority of the film takes place in. This is huge for the film because it allows us the audience several dynamics to establish between this group to give the dominant plot in the foreground time to age and pace accordingly, and it’s entirely successful, as there wasn’t one side of the spectrum that I didn’t enjoy spending time with and feeling firmly invested in. This is a film that values all of its cast, big or small, and with plenty of time invested, we really get to see this team grow together and understand what makes each of the tick in regards to workplace interaction.
– Surprising performances. Thompson and Kaling are both national treasures, but what amazed me was the undeterred energy that each brought to their respective roles in making this feel like a big stakes drama. For Kaling, it’s finally the chance to shed some of that comic muscle and establish her as a watery-eyed kindred spirit, who we the audience engage and invest into. Mindy shows a soft side that makes her a shoe-in for future romantic comedies, and balances a fine line of intelligence, wit, and a radiant smile to make us fall for the positivity of her character. Thompson deserves academy recognition, and I’m not kidding. Katherine is a powder keg of emotional response, feeling her way through a fierce tug-of-war between a network ready to pull the plug on her show, as well as a husband feeling the same constraints thanks to a battle with Parkinson’s. Thompson’s earnesty and flawed protagonist is something that gives her dimensions from a character like Meryl Streep’s in “The Devil Wears Prada”, all the while preserving this side of vulnerability that transforms her for us, as well as the audience on-screen who keep the ratings going. Emma gives us many powerful gut-punches during scenes of pain, as well as a damp blanket of cynicism during initial meetings with her team, and it led to this bigger picture for the character that kept her maintained as this enigma of sorts, which in turn made it easier to understand why her show has been the stable that it’s been for so many decades.
– Informative. In the same vein as “Spotlight” did for newsrooms, “Late Night” presents a vivid rendering of a television writers room, complete with thinktank discussions and fast-paced confrontations, which feel authentic in their progressions. To absorb as much in this room as possible is understanding how conventionalism played such a pivotal foe in Katherine’s diminishing returns with her audience, with this broken link in communication between them being this obvious adversity to understanding what makes the host so endearing. Years of experience prescribes arrogance, and conjures up this difficult pill of truth for each of them to swallow with regards to the failing reputation of the show. Being the writer of this film, Kaling definitely has the experience and wisdom to accurately portray these kind of dire situations, and it’s why much of the material encased feels authentic in its wisdom.
– Dane Cook. No, he’s not in the film, but to anyone who was an avid MadTV watcher like me, will remember Ike Barinholtz’s near perfect impression of the infamous stand-up comic, and in certain elements it returns in this film. Barinholtz plays this popular stand-up comic who is shamed by Katherine because his material feels very degrading and thirsty for attention. In addition to this, Ike’s deliveries feel very fast paced, crude in dialogue, and flimsy for depth in material. Sound familiar? If I didn’t list this on the positives, I would be doing my final grade a disservice, because I could watch Ike portray this character for years, and never get tired of it. Beyond the debate of who he is impersonating, the character reminds us of everything that is wrong with today’s comedy landscape, where audiences trade in intelligence of storytelling for vulgarity and cheap sound effects that should be marketed towards an infant.
– Art imitating life? There are many situations in the film that feel plucked from real life, and establish a sense of humanity within these celebrities who we view as anything but human, thanks to their infamy. Some examples that I found were definitely the pushing of a fresh, new host to the decades old show (Jay Leno), a network pressuring a classic host to adapt with the times (David Letterman), and a ratings slump despite being prestigious in awards recognition (Conan O’ Brien). What I love about this is it summarizes the best of every world in favor of this one lone embodiment, then makes that figure a woman, which is something that we haven’t quite yet had hosting a late night show on a major network. So we get to blend the reality with fantasy for a result that proves the human similarities of men and women, in hopes to erase this line of separation once and for all in every facet of entertainment.
– Costume design. For a movie so grounded in reality, there is a strong use of fashion in the film, specifically within the two female leads, that fruitfully delves into the contrast in each of their personalities. For Katherine, the use of pantsuits and lack of skin shown speaks volumes to the strict demeanor that has earned her intimidating presence among her staff. For Kaling’s Molly, it’s a combination of free-flowing sundresses and vibrancy in colors that illustrates her bubbly personality front-and-center, allowing her to visually convey her as this colorful breath of fresh air that this team so desperately needs. The flare of fashion persists throughout the film, hinting at something deeper beneath its intention, and does so without feeling like a distraction to what’s transpiring around it.
– Romantic subplot. Not only is this the most unnecessary aspect of the script, but its lack of development leaves so much on the bone of curiosity from the lack of what develops. First of all, I don’t think there should’ve been a romantic subplot because it demeans the integrity of a female character, and feeds into her sleeping her way to the top. Secondly, the romance between Dancy and Kaling goes literally nowhere, disappearing for long periods of screen time without further elaboration or exposition to remind us that it is still a thing. Another romantic subplot materializes by the film’s end, and its result is so shoe-horned in to the closing minutes that it’s not only disappointing for how they built these two characters along, but also for how it comes out of nowhere from the lack of previous establishing scenes. It’s the biggest mess to a film that is otherwise written pretty tightly.
– Stilted stand-up. This is a continuous problem with the stand-up comedy world being portrayed in film. It’s rare in a movie where I will laugh during a stand-up comedy scene, and especially in this case coming from someone who is a prophet of that environment, how is the material left on the page so terribly unfunny? Maybe it’s a point to prove that stand-up comedy overall isn’t funny, especially considering it’s mostly ushered in by that Dane Cook character that I mentioned earlier, but this is a repetitive problem in every movie featuring stand-up comedy ever, and while it isn’t enough to ruin the sharp sting of the sword in conversations and casual dialogues, it does take some steam away from what Kaling is capable of as a screenwriter.
My Grade: 8/10 or B+