October 19, 2019

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Film tackles topical issues with wit, warmth

Workplace comedy a fun watch, but needs to take more risks

Emily Aragones / Amazon Studios / The Associated Press</p><p>Emma Thompson in a scene from 'Late Night.'</p>

Emily Aragones / Amazon Studios / The Associated Press

Emma Thompson in a scene from 'Late Night.'

“I wish I were a woman of colour so I could get any job I wanted without any qualifications,” a totally mediocre white guy says in this funny — but also serious — new comedy from writer Mindy Kaling and Canadian-born director Nisha Ganatra.

Kaling (known for her work on both sides of the camera in The Office and The Mindy Project) plays Molly Patel. She’s the “diversity hire” brought in to change the status quo of the stale, male, white writers’ room of a long-running late-night talk show hosted by Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson at her most deliciously crisp and imperious). Sweet, earnest, unsinkable Molly — she brings cupcakes on her first day of work — tries her best to shake things up.

So does Kaling. Looking at issues of racism, sexism and representation, she handles tough problems with a light hand and a generous heart. But she’s following several narrative strands — Late Night is a workplace comedy, a rom-com, a fish-out-of-water setup, a boomers versus millennials showdown — and the story sometimes feels scattered and lacking in specifics.

Molly, who has been working in a chemical plant in Pennsylvania but lives and breathes comedy, comes along as Katherine is slipping in the ratings. (It seems ironic that a movie about the deadening power of the patriarchy takes place in an alternate universe where a female has actually hosted a late-night major-network talk show long enough to get tired and complacent.)

"I wish I were a woman of colour so I could get any job I wanted without any qualifications," a totally mediocre white guy says in this funny — but also serious — new comedy from writer Mindy Kaling and Canadian-born director Nisha Ganatra.

Kaling (known for her work on both sides of the camera in The Office and The Mindy Project) plays Molly Patel. She’s the "diversity hire" brought in to change the status quo of the stale, male, white writers’ room of a long-running late-night talk show hosted by Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson at her most deliciously crisp and imperious). Sweet, earnest, unsinkable Molly — she brings cupcakes on her first day of work — tries her best to shake things up.

So does Kaling. Looking at issues of racism, sexism and representation, she handles tough problems with a light hand and a generous heart. But she’s following several narrative strands — Late Night is a workplace comedy, a rom-com, a fish-out-of-water setup, a boomers versus millennials showdown — and the story sometimes feels scattered and lacking in specifics.

Molly, who has been working in a chemical plant in Pennsylvania but lives and breathes comedy, comes along as Katherine is slipping in the ratings. (It seems ironic that a movie about the deadening power of the patriarchy takes place in an alternate universe where a female has actually hosted a late-night major-network talk show long enough to get tired and complacent.)

Emily Aragones / Amazon Studios</p><p>Mindy Kaling plays Molly Patel, a ‘diversity hire’ brought in to change the status quo of the stale, male, white writers’ room of a long-running late-night talk show.</p></p>

Emily Aragones / Amazon Studios

Mindy Kaling plays Molly Patel, a ‘diversity hire’ brought in to change the status quo of the stale, male, white writers’ room of a long-running late-night talk show.

Presumably Katherine was a feminist pioneer back in the 1990s, but she’s long since hardened into an "I did it. Why can’t you?" attitude. Everyone in her writing room is a white dude from an Ivy League school. The social-media-despising Katherine also refuses to book trendy YouTube influencers, preferring guests like historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who seems unlikely to go viral.

In short, Katherine has become "everybody’s least favourite aunt." A new network head (Amy Ryan) wants to replace her with comedy bro Daniel Tennant (Ike Barinholtz), who’s probably coming off "an arena tour sponsored by an energy drink," as Katherine acidly suggests.

In a surface attempt to look cool and current and pro-woman, Katherine hires Molly. Even though the all-male writing staff won’t give Molly a seat at the table — literally! she has to sit on an overturned garbage can — she perseveres, pushing Katherine to get topical, political and personal. This eventually involves Katherine doing some funny standup about being a middle-aged woman, pointing out, for example, that her options as a 50-something female in Hollywood include "playing Sean Penn’s grandmother."

There’s a Jane Austen-ish romantic triangle going on with Molly and two co-writers (Hugh Dancy and Reid Scott), but the real love story here is Molly’s work relationship with Katherine. Their comic chemistry works beautifully — Molly’s super-keen enthusiasm constantly bumping into Katherine’s wry, dry Britishness — while offering some sly commentary on intersectional feminism.

Late Night raises some timely questions. How do you make entertainment "relevant" without losing your sense of humour? How do you keep it accessible without resorting to lowest-common-denominator pap? Kaling and Ganatra, who’s worked on TV comedies like Dear White People and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, lead by example, tackling topical issues with wit and warmth.

But their refreshing niceness sometimes needs a bit more bite. Molly wins by convincing Katherine not to play it safe, but Kaling herself needs to take a few more risks.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor
Writer

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

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