The first startling moment in Late Night comes when we realize that in the world of this movie, Katherine Newbury — a woman — has been hosting a late-night comedy show on a major TV network for nearly three decades, something no woman has actually done in our world.
But the second comes shortly thereafter, when Newbury (played by a pitch-perfect Emma Thompson), who’s faced with the threat of being replaced by a hot-shot young comedian (Ike Barinholtz) after 10 straight years of dropping ratings, is accused by her own producer (Denis O’Hare) of not liking women. Her writers’ room is stacked with white guys, some of whom were hired due to nepotism, most of whom have never interacted with Katherine directly, and in all her years as the show’s host, she’s never hired a female writer.
Katherine reacts defensively — and then hires Molly (played by Late Night’s producer and writer, Mindy Kaling) as if to prove the point — but it’s a telling moment. Late Night is a workplace comedy that feels like a cousin of The Devil Wears Prada, and its greatest strength is its two lead characters, both of whom have adopted coping mechanisms while navigating a male-dominated field.
That Katherine is a pioneering woman who seems to mistrust other women may feel familiar to some women; that Molly is insecure but sincere and scrappy may ring a bell, too. Late Night feels underwritten in some spots, but it’s surprising in others — an unfussy, entertaining comedy with some serious matters on its mind.
Late Night throws two women into the same room: a jaded star fighting for relevance and a fresh, serious young talent
Newbury has been hosting a late-night show for so long that she’s becoming irrelevant, even in the eyes of her most devoted fans, which include Molly. She’s from an older generation and eschews her counterparts’ fondness for viral pranks (Jimmy Fallon is prominently name-checked) in favor of guests like Doris Kearns Goodwin and Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Her monologues hew to the older, joke-driven style, and they’re full of goofy one-liners that lack much in the way of teeth.
Molly gets hired more or less by accident — she happens to be interviewing with the show’s producer and explaining her job at a chemical plant when Katherine calls him and demands to know if he’s hired a woman yet. But she has watched Katherine’s comedy for years, and is certain that if she put a bit of herself into it, infusing some of her acerbic wit and her own views into her monologue, the show would improve. And Katherine is in the rare position to listen, having just been informed by her network president (Amy Ryan) that her current season will be her last.
Molly represents new ideas and fresh blood, which doesn’t mean much to the guys in the writers’ room, who see her as a diversity hire — either a nuisance or a piece of fresh meat to woo. But she digs in, and so does Katherine. The two start to learn from one another a little. Things seem to be on the upswing; new man-on-the-street segments with a political bite (like the cheeky “Katherine Newbury, White Savior”) begin to attract new audiences. The show’s ratings start to climb. And then a blot on Katherine’s past resurfaces and threatens to tank it all.
You can imagine a straightforward Hollywood approach to this material, which would lean into stereotypes, hinge on an odd-couple friendship between Molly and Katherine, and end with some kind of rousing, vapid feminism-lite sloganeering about following your dreams and being empowered. Or one where Molly has to win the respect of her white-guy boss or Katherine has to win over the male network executive.
But Kaling’s writing, in the hands of director Nisha Ganatra, is sharp enough to sidestep all those storytelling standards and keep things interesting, without making her bolder narrative choices (Katherine’s singular job, Molly’s former occupation and non-comedy roots) overwhelm the larger story.
Late Night dodges some tired clichés by keeping its protagonists complex
Late Night is, first and foremost, about the tactics some women use, even unwittingly, to try to stay ahead in male-dominated spaces, whether in comedy or some other field — hiding certain aspects of their personality, apologizing for things that don’t require an apology, or adopting an attitude of distrust toward other women. It feels a little startling that Katherine is a female late-night host at a network helmed by a female TV executive, and that underlines the point: They’ve had to adapt themselves to a world that’s still mostly a boys’ club.
That means Late Night’s comedy show setting itself isn’t as important to the film as its gender exploration. So there are fewer jokes than you might expect, especially in a film written by a comedy writer, and the actors who play the guys in the writers’ room (including Hugh Dancy, Reid Scott, and Max Casella) don’t have a lot to work with, all of which leaves some gaps in the story.
But the women at its center are complex characters, particularly Katherine. She remains prickly to the end. She loves her husband (John Lithgow), who is beginning to show noticeable effects from Parkinson’s yet remains as supportive as ever, but she doesn’t have friends or a lot of interest in making any. She’s clearly a smart woman who’s risen to the top of her field on the strength of her wit, intelligence, and repartee. (Fellow late-night hosts Jimmy Fallon, Stephen Colbert, and John Oliver all get name-checked in the film, and Seth Meyers actually shows up.)
But there’s no doubt Katherine is pretty mean and has made some bad choices. And Late Night does her the courtesy of not suggesting that she’s been visited by the Ghost of Comedy Future and changed her personality as a result of working with Molly. She’s just a little more in touch with herself.
Next to Katherine, Molly feels a little less well-rounded; Kaling is great, but this is Thompson’s movie. And yet Molly is no wide-eyed naif. She’s just earnest. She brings cupcakes on her first day and hangs an unironic motivational poster over her desk. But she also speaks up for herself. She can sniff out a guy who’s giving her a line. And she takes her job seriously — which, as it turns out, is a good thing, even in a room full of complacent dudes who think she’s way too much of a try-hard.
In its own way, Late Night is, indeed, a movie about women being empowered, with a narrative that modestly undercuts Hollywood’s worst tendencies. It’s not a think piece delivered as a comedy, and it doesn’t have much to say about the current state of the late-night comedy world. But it’s a breath of fresh air, a cheeky bit of entertainment that will have the side effect of prodding other star-led comedies to try a little harder.
Late Night premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2019 and opens in theaters on June 7.