Movie Review – Late Night (2019)
Mindy Kaling is probably best known for her role on NBC’s The Office (2005). She parlayed that role into her own TV series on FOX called The Mindy Project (2012), which ran for six seasons. Kaling was the creator and main writer for that series. She’s also the writer of this film, and if one is familiar with her series, this film feels like it could be an extended episode of The Mindy Project. Aside from some of the cinematography, this film’s look and tone is akin to that FOX series. Kaling’s performance and her character for the most part is very akin to that FOX series. Unlike The Mindy Project, this film doesn’t center on any kind of romance. It’s a workplace comedy, which is again very akin to that FOX series, as well as the NBC series where Kaling got her start.
Kaling isn’t the main character here though. She’s an important supporting character, very significant in fact. She’s possibly co-lead, but she’s second fiddle to Emma Thompson (Beauty and the Beast and Saving Mr. Banks). Thompson stars as Katherine Newbury, the host of a late-night talk show, presumably the only woman with that kind of a show who is still currently on the air. In real life, this is not the case. There is no woman with a late-night talk show. There has certainly never been one who has been continuously on the air for as long as Katherine has been on the air, which seems like the better part of 20 years.
If she has any corollary, she’s a bit like the female version of Jay Leno. Her personality doesn’t appear to be the same. Katherine is from England. When she’s not keeping a stiff upper lip, she’s rather cynical and not very empathetic. She has a sharp and biting wit. She’s arguably egotistical. She demands excellence but without engaging with emotions like compassion. She’s almost bitterly objective. She shares some things with Jay Leno like the objectivity to comedy, although some have later pointed out some of Leno’s biases in retrospect. She’s also like Leno in that she’s over-the-hill and has never had nor wanted children.
What she shares mainly with Leno though is the story line of her losing her job and being replaced. Back in 2009, Jay Leno made headlines and continued making headlines into 2010 regarding him losing his job and being replaced. Leno was the host of NBC’s The Tonight Show, which is a job he had since 1992. NBC wanted to replace Leno with Conan O’Brien who was the host of NBC’s Late Night, which aired after Leno’s show. Leno, however, didn’t want to be replaced. He was being ushered out. What followed was a weird back-and-forth that is one for television history, but it was one of the most awkward transitions of a late-night host possibly ever.
Here, Katherine is facing the same thing. The network that produces her show wants to replace her. She doesn’t want to be replaced. The difference here is that the network is a bit justified in that Katherine’s show has been losing ratings for 10 years and several people agree that the show isn’t as good in that it’s gotten a bit irrelevant, not having kept up with the times. Katherine is a bit conservative or traditional in terms of how she wants her show to be. She doesn’t want to embrace some of the modern trends or trends brought on by the internet age. Leno was similarly traditional. Yet, he wasn’t as stodgy and his ratings were never an issue.
Kaling co-stars as Molly Patel, a woman who’s hired as one of the comedy writers on Katherine’s show. Molly is a woman of color, a woman of Indian-descent. Her presence on the show is supposed to compensate for the fact that Katherine’s show doesn’t have any women writers or any writers of color. This film, as a result, is meant to comment on the fact that in key creative positions like the writers, there aren’t a lot, if any women, or people of color. This has been true for network shows for decades. There has been a change in the past, five years, which makes this film not as timely as it would have been back when The Mindy Project began.
Molly’s presence is meant to comment on that kind of insidious sexism and racism that exists behind-the-scenes on these kinds of shows. Katherine’s presence is also meant to comment on the kind of sexism that exists in front of the camera. It’s a wonder of what the world would be like if, instead of Jay Leno as the host of The Tonight Show for nearly 20 years, we had a woman in that role. This film suggests the world would be pretty much the same, which is perhaps the failing of the film.
The idea that Katherine would go for so long without having retained any female writers or any writers of color on her staff feels contrived and unrealistic. The journey that she undertakes in which she has to learn to adapt to the changing times also seems silly. The departure from Katherine and Jay Leno is that Leno always talked about continuing to do stand-up comedy outside of his show, even while he hosted The Tonight Show. Bill Maher, who is featured in this film, also talked about continuing to do stand-up in various venues around the country, even while hosting his late-night talk show. However, this film suggests that Katherine doesn’t or hasn’t stopped doing stand-up until one critical moment late in this film. She refuses to be personal or political, which feels so antithetical to other stand-up comics who have gotten late-night TV shows. The idea that Katherine needed Molly to go on this journey simply rang hollow for her character.
This film does bring up an interesting debate that’s about style, which it rather drops for something else, but I wish it had continued developing that debate. The debate involves what kind of show does Katherine want to do, as opposed to what might be more hip or seemingly relevant. The debate could be best exemplified in the contrast between two current late-night shows, that of The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. At first, Katherine seems like she wants to do a show that’s more akin to Colbert’s show, which is more intellectual and where she only interviews older people who write books and study history. Her executive tells Katherine that she should do a show that’s more akin to Fallon’s show, which is more about pop culture, silly games and stunts for viral videos.
If the movie had developed something that pitted those two styles against each other in a more dramatic way, that would have been better. Instead, it decides to veer into a plot that’s more about addressing the Me Too Movement, but in a half-baked way. However, the movie doesn’t acknowledge a real-life, late-night host who experienced a similar Me Too moment but before that actual movement was established. Before Colbert, David Letterman was the host of The Late Show. Back in 2009, Letterman was exposed as having affairs with people on his staff. Letterman had to go on the air and apologize publicly. Katherine essentially experiences the same thing, but it’s treated as this world-ending thing without any context or reference to the Letterman incident.
Rated R for language and some sexual references.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 42 mins.