I didn’t know it before seeing Late Night, but apparently jokes involving Doris Kearns Goodwin, the prolific and fascinating historian and author (Team of Rivals, The Bully Pulpit), are a sure-fire way to get me to love your movie. The joke is thrown in during an early encounter quality control agent-turned-comedy writer Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling) has with the host of the late night variety show she’s recently been hired onto. Emma Thompson is that host, Katherine Newbury; it’s a role that cements Thompson’s own iconic character along the lines of Meryl Streep and Miranda Priestley.
The moment, though fleeting, is indicative of the film’s sharp wit and intelligence throughout. Neither is wielded with even the slightest hint of ego or superiority; a film doesn’t have to be a haughty prestige pic to be these things. If anything, Late Night (directed by Nisha Ganatra in her feature debut following a respectable career in television) makes being smart look cool, as Kaling isn’t shy about flexing her storytelling muscles in ways that add layers rather than filler.
Molly is hired on at Tonight with Katherine Newbury when the host and her team realize the writing room is populated by nothing but white men. It’s an extremely timely premise and works well enough to get the plot up and running; in the end, it becomes merely a vehicle for Kaling to tell a story of women in the workplace, female ambition and ultimately, female friendship.
Newbury has been the host of Tonight for decades, so long that she’s resigned to phoning it in most nights. She doesn’t engage with her audience, she’s not on social media, she doesn’t do any segment that would take her out of the studio. And it shows in her ratings, to the point that the new head of the network (Amy Ryan) plans to replace her for…a white guy (Ike Berinholtz). Determined to keep her job and prove everyone wrong, Katherine, tries turning over a new leaf, hiring Molly and spending more time than ever with her writers (even if she can’t be bothered to learn their names).
Much of Late Night proceeds as you would expect it to: no-nonsense, abrasive Katherine charges through meetings, chewing up and spitting out anyone too dumb, too slow, or too boring. Plucky, optimistic Molly chimes in with well-meaning and thoughtful suggestions that, unsurprisingly, rub Katherine the wrong way. The push and pull is fairly predictable, so it’s a credit to Kaling and her strong script that she throws in just enough around the perimeter to keep things interesting. We learn that on top of everything, Katherine’s home life is consumed by her husband’s (John Lithgow) progressive illness. There’s a potential romance for Molly with one of the interchangeable faces in the writer’s room (which is stacked with familiar faces, including Hugh Dancy, Reid Scott, Max Casella, Denis O’Hare).
When crisis inevitably strikes, it’s another timely topic Kaling chooses to derail Katherine’s progress, one that gets just enough of a spin to keep it fresh. As the scandal brings Molly and Katherine closer, the real heart of the story reveals itself. Kaling has acknowledged that she wrote this script with Thompson in mind, a woman who in many ways cleared a path for creatives like Kaling. Thompson’s been writing films (and then starring in them) for decades, from 1995’s Sense and Sensibility to the Nanny McPhee series; she’s more than worthy of admiration by fellow female scribes.
All this makes Late Night, particularly its conclusion, something to adore. There are hefty doses of influence from a number of now-classic romcoms and ensemble works that preceded it; like a fine wine whose taste calls to mind a number of different notes, you’ll pick up hints of When Harry Met Sally, the Bridget Jones films, and plenty of John Hughes throughout. It’s perhaps the Pretty Woman-esque ending (problematic as it may be through a modern lens) that is sweetest of all, reaffirming the love that’s developed between these women, a relationship that transcends boss and employee or even mentor and mentee and reminds us just what’s possible when we show up for each other.