Here is a comedy from Mindy Kaling that has some bite, but a surprising lack of sharp teeth that plays it all too timidly.
In recent years, Mindy Kaling has been one of the most refreshing voices in comedy. I’m not even parceling that female comedian or a comedian of color. The Mindy Kaling Project was a force to be reckoned with, balancing farce and physical comedy. She won an Emmy for Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series for The Office (an unseemly injustice that never happened for MKP). Hell, anyone who wrote “The Dundies” should already be in the comedy hall of fame. Her latest project, writing the script for the new comedy, Late Night, is well-intentioned. It thinks it has a big bite without enough sharp teeth.
Kaling plays Molly Patel, a thirty-something woman with no comedy experience but works in a chemical plant in central Pennsylvania. There was an essay contest at her factory plant, where the prize was she could meet with any executive in the country (insert questionable face emoji). She manages to win. The chemical factory plant is owned by a parent company that owns a company with the rights to Late Night (similar to General Electric owning NBC). This gets her foot in the door, in the door of a talk show that has declined in the ratings the past decade that is very old, very male, and very white. She is hired as a diversity hire. The legendary host, Katherine Newberry (Emma Thompson), wants a female writer on her staff after being called out “as a woman who hates women.”
Director Nisha Ganatra (known for her work on the Transparent comedy film) has some heart for making one of the films “nice” pass for having one at all. While sincere, it’s the fake kind of heart that passes these days as a “winning.” Late Night would have worked better as a biting satire about diversity and nepotism in the business known as show. There are brief glimpses of this, including a “White Savior” remote bit, but only enough to dip your toe in the water instead of immersing the film in it.
Kaling has a history of working in Late Night comedy, working as an intern for Late Night with Conan O’Brien, and does get the behind-the-scenes feel right. Several scenes show writers staying late, working, and watching the late-night host running line during rehearsal on television in the offices. The film starts with a sharp dig or two, with Kaling commenting to her new boss, “Oh, I saw the writers. I’m not worried about masculinity” or the men using the women’s bathroom as their place to take a s**t are timely and make you think this film has a chip on its shoulder. Yet, after that, it’s downhill with the script taking a step back for jokes that strangely play it safe and are often too timid, a death sentence in comedy terms.
Please don’t get me wrong, Late Night is a pleasant diversion for a handful of minutes and has its heart in the right place. Emma Thompson has always had a knack for comedy, as she manages some laughs, but she would have been suited for a more cantankerous line. Kaling does what she can with her role (then again, she wrote it), but you never sense her struggle in a male-dominated industry with the failed subplot of an essay contest. Or even a sense of her growing up in the unique world in an East-Indian household and how that influenced her life choices. Everything this comedy does is surface-level and never gets too deep.
Late Night is well-intentioned, but the thinly veiled plot and characters don’t live up to the message the film set out to communicate to its audience. There is a better movie in here ready to burst out, instead of cracking that glass ceiling, then taking a step back to apologize for it.