At least from this writer’s modest point of view, Mindy Kaling is one the Hollywood names at the forefront of intellect and individuality. She is an actress who refuses to be anything other than authentic – even when she tackles issues of race and gender politics. It is because of her strong sense of self, a trait put on full display in her iconic role as Kelly ‘The Business Bitch’ Kapoor in the American version of The Office, that has seen her star rise to legendary meme-queen status. It’s a feat that recognises her authenticity, which has seemingly struck the right chord with the Buzzfeed generation.
Working as writer/actor/producer and sharing the screen with two-time Oscar winner Emma Thompson, Kaling continues to showcase her perpetually delightful persona and her array of talent with a comedy that could be one of the most intelligent and hilarious films of 2019.
Late Night finds Kaling playing Molly Patel, a junior writer in New York working for a struggling late night talk show hosted by veteran comedian Katherine Newbury (Thompson). Considered out-of-touch, with the glory years of the show being behind her, Newbury faces the pressure of being replaced by a younger, cruder, male comedian. It is here where Newbury, Patel and her staff of predominantly male writers – all of which are addressed as numbers by Newbury – are tasked to keep the sinking ship afloat. What ends up culminating in Late Night is a layered and right-for-2019 comedy that tackles a trifecta of discrimination: sexism, racism and ageism.
Patel is hired based on a desire by Newbury to have a greater female presence in her team – a diversity hiring that can often be a decision associated with white men. Smartly, director Nisha Ganatra (Transparent, Brooklyn Nine-Nine) takes it to new ground by focusing on the pressures of females who inherit a toxic-and-systematically-male-favouring work culture. What Late Night delivers in terms of being an exploration of 21st-century feminism is like few films before it, avoiding simple man-targeting and pointing instead to the conflicting ideologies between the two lead characters as a major cause of their frustration. It’s also where much of the film’s effective humour is drawn.
With her blond-Elvis style hair and pin-stripe suit in tow – as though to present herself with a sense of androgyny – Newbury is a hardened intellectual that has risen in the ranks of a male-dominated business. Thompson delivers an astounding performance, delivering the hard-and-soft on what is an incredibly layered character that may (and perhaps should) see her name appear in awards conversation. It is Newbury’s pursuit of excellence – as though any sign of showing mercy would be taken as weakness – that sees her compromise herself as a comedian. A matter that sees Late Night function not only as a statement piece on discrimination, but also as a well-written character study on a person reconnecting with her comedy roots.
Kaling’s unassuming and charming disposition radiates so infectiously that she absorbs the audience into the film by her sheer presence. This becomes a more impressive achievement considering how Kaling and Ganatra handle topical themes with smartly-aimed frustration; it makes a progressive comedy right for the masses in a similar way the more gag-driven Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy was in 2004.
Rounding out the remaining roles are John Lithgow as Newbury’s disease-stricken husband and Reid Scott as a monologue writer challenged by Patel’s presence in the writers room. Both actors churn out solid supporting performances.
Considering it has taken up until the appointment of Lily Singh in 2019 for a woman to host a late night talk show on a major US network, Late Night depicts a more advanced portrayal of female representation in entertainment than what exists in real-life. It’s a bit of a dour thought then: this is an optimistic view of a more inclusive Hollywood.
Still, while Late Night is indeed connected firmly to the current climate and serves as an intelligent exploration on discrimination, it also has plenty of surface value, working well as an impeccably acted crowd-pleaser with depth for those keen to look further.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★★★☆
‘Late Night’ opened in Australian cinemas on August 8 and US cinemas on June 14.