[This is a re-post of my review from the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Late Night opens in limited release today and goes wide on June 14th.]
On the surface, Nisha Ganatra’s Late Night seems like basic comedy fare. You’ve got characters who have flaws and then force each other to grow by addressing those flaws, and everyone is richer for the experience by challenging their preconceived notions. But while Mindy Kaling’s script may channel the beats of a rom-com or a workplace comedy, the story within is cutting and vibrant. Led by outstanding performances from Emma Thompson and Kaling, Late Night isn’t just hilarious; it’s also a look at what courage means with regards to comedy and how those with the most to lose—in this case, smart, thoughtful women—can find the best jokes. And best of all, these women aren’t apologizing for being the funniest people in the room.
Tonight with Katherine Newbury is on its last legs. Although the late night show’s host (Thompson) is an acclaimed comic who holds herself to a standard of excellence, the program has grown stale and the new head of the network (Amy Ryan) plans to replace Newbury with someone hipper and more attuned to the late night comedy landscape. In a half-hearted effort to counteract this replacement, Newbury demands that her writing staff, which is all white and male, add a female voice. In comes Molly (Kaling), who formerly did quality control at a chemical plant but works her way to an interview and through luck and pluck, manages to land the job. While Newbury is at first reluctant to accept any changes and views her writing staff with disdain, she eventually warms to Molly who challenges Newbury to rediscover her own comic voice.
Watching Late Night, I was immediately struck by how strong both Newbury and Molly are, but in unconventional ways. Too often, a “strong female character” means a paragon of nobility who faces down all adversity. In Late Night, both Newbury and Molly have flaws, but they’re not bad people, nor are they saints. Newbury can be casually cruel with the people in her life, and Molly can be a bit too earnest and open for her own good. But these flaws are what make them interesting and provide the electricity for the story as the two characters start to come together.
It’s easy to get on board with Newbury and Molly because not only is the writing so strong, but also because Thompson and Kaling are fantastic. While the Academy doesn’t often notice comic-leaning performances, I truly believe Thompson is Oscar-worthy as Newbury. The way she balances little moments and looks with impeccable comic timing on her one-liners is astounding. It’s no secret that Thompson is an incredible actress, but her turn as Newbury is one of her finest performances that’s perfectly counterbalanced by Kaling as Molly. Kaling could have given herself a lovable ingénue who wakes up the writing staff with her brilliance, but Molly is defined by work ethic and determination rather than just her jokes. Her enthusiasm makes her a foil for Newbury’s dry wit, and the actresses compliment each other beautifully.
Even more stunning is how the world of Late Night truly has something to say about the state of comedy. There are comedians (who tend to be white and male) who bemoan the current state of comedy and say that “political correctness” stops them from being able to tell the jokes they want to tell. Late Night counterpunches and says this position is just laziness from people who no longer have anything left to fight for. For Newbury and Molly, who have real skin in the game because they can’t expected to be handed anything, the challenge is how to find a new comic voice and break free of complacency and fear. Rather than blame the world, which is where Newbury starts, Late Night argues that comics, even those with countless accolades, are the ones who need to change if they hope to stay funny.
Late Night never needs to get preachy with its message about comedy because it’s all in the characters’ actions. No one needs to give a speech about the state of comedy, and there doesn’t need to be an avatar for the old guard bemoaning the changing face of comedy. The dynamic between Newbury and Molly and the arcs for both characters speak volumes with a deft comic edge. The mix of comedy and subtext is intoxicating, and I can’t wait to see it again.