Mindy Kaling wrote and stars in "Late Night," a comedy that doesn't quite work on any level.
Everybody loves Mindy Kaling. In "Late Night" - a film she wrote, directed by a mostly-TV director Nisha Ganatra - she stars as Molly Patel, a chemical plant worker who finds herself as the only female writer on a late night talk show. That show's host is Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson), a brash English comedian who has become completely irrelevant over the years, and whose show has plummeted in the ratings. It's the story of a woman (Kaling) trying to break into a misogynistic workplace, and a woman (Thompson) so deeply entrenched that she has lost sight of her own identity.
"Late Night" has all the makings of a break-out comedy hit, so why do things just feel so...off? Where shall I begin? First off, it's partially because the writing just isn't all that funny...we begin with a premise so far-fetched that it may be acceptable in some sort of satire, but that doesn't seem to be the vein of comedy that the rest of the movie exists in, making it feel quite implausible. It's also the sort of manipulative movie that tells you when to laugh, and when not to, because it cuts to several character reaction shots who are either laughing or not laughing. Funny should come naturally, not spoon-fed to the audience. And the "fresh" ideas that Molly brings the table aren't all that fresh, when you stop to think about them.
Second - and this is a big, potentially unpopular one - but Emma Thompson, as great as she is, seems to be entirely miscast. Even though she is down in the ratings, we are supposed to believe that she was at one time a likable stand-up comedian, who could deliver a monologue, deliver a punchline, or successfully ad-lib with guests. Thompson gives us no outward sign that this character had any of this past charisma or charm. While watching, I was picturing a Goldie Hawn, a Bette Midler, an Ellen DeGeneres...anyone with whom the audience could immediately identify as having been funny once. Thompson's cold Cruella De Vil impersonation just doesn't hold water, and it affects the rest of the film.
There are other, smaller issues, like how the set-up for this movie felt ripe for a "woman in the workplace"-themed comedy, yet never went there. Kaling's script doesn't go towards the obvious comedic gold mines, and instead focuses more on the story of Katherine Newbury's re-connection with relevancy. And to think that the solutions were so simple all along! All she had to do was be herself and add some political humor, two ideas that couldn't possibly come to a man!
In the era of #MeToo and women's rights, it is great to see films like "Late Night" celebrating such issues...here is a comedy about a powerful woman and a talented female newcomer, written and directed by women...heck, John Lithgow even plays the "supportive" spouse in a refreshing gender-role-reversal. But it would be even better to see such films take place in some semblance of reality.
The universe Kaling creates in "Late Night" feels genuinely false, right down to how the network responds to the second-coming of Katherine Newbury. And there isn't a believable character on-screen, male or female. It's enough to make you want to change the channel.
Genre: Comedy, Drama.
Run Time: 1 hour 42 minutes.
Starring: Mindy Kaling, Emma Thompson, John Lithgow, Hugh Dancy, Reid Scott, Denis O'Hare, Max Casella, Paul Walter Hauser, Ike Barinholtz, Amy Ryan.
Written by Mindy Kaling (feature-film screenwriting debut).
Directed by Nisha Ganatra ("Cake," "Fast Food High").
"Late Night" opens everywhere on Friday, June 14th, 2019.
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