Comedy is a tricky genre. Humor is deeply subjective and varies not just from person to person but within one person, too. Me? I tend to find obscure literary puns just as hilarious as poop jokes, and as far as I know, there’s no comedy out there that incorporates such disparate preferences. (Except maybe Shakespeare, but, I mean, come on.)
Wide variations in taste tend to make cinematic comedies go in one of three directions: a bit watered down and safe, madcap and absurd, or completely offensive. There’s a place for all three of those in film, but it’s increasingly rare to find a comedy that’s funny, relevant and downright pleasant to watch.
This year, that comedy is Late Night.
Writer and producer Mindy Kaling stars as Molly Patel, a chemical-plant efficiency expert who takes a chance on a career switch to writing for a late-night talk show just as the host — Katherine Newbury, played by Emma Thompson — comes under fire for being irrelevant in her comedy and discriminatory in her hiring practices, and thus on the verge of being replaced. Molly joins a writers’ room full of men who range from privileged and abrasive (Reid Scott of Veep fame) to charming and friendly (Hugh Dancy, having learned a few lessons from Mads Mikkelsen during Hannibal), headed by a woman who is desperate to keep her job and her legacy but reluctant to take risks and change.
Part of the brilliance of Late Night is that from just that summary alone, you can probably guess what happens — but Kaling and director Nisha Ganatra constantly subvert your expectations and smartly twist what could be a pretty flat movie into something dynamic. While eager to please, Molly isn’t naive. She knows she’s a “diversity hire” in more ways than one; she struggles to prove herself to a very critical Katherine but firmly draws a line and refuses to take Katherine’s abuse when she goes too far.
Similarly, Katherine could be a caricature of a woman, a monster akin to Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, but Kaling’s script and Thompson’s performance give this fictional TV personality real humanity, alternately buoying her with the swagger she’s earned with over 25 years in the business and burdening her with the weight of her mistakes.
It’s possible Late Night could be the most feminist movie of the year — or at least one of them, as it joins the ranks of Captain Marvel and Booksmart from the first half of 2019. And unlike some Netflix releases, it’s feminist without really saying so (you’ll find no mugs with empty slogans here), and it lets women be ugly with each other, too. Too many movies think feminism means women getting along and supporting each other all the time when in reality women fight all the time, whether for petty reasons or important ones. One of the most fascinating conflicts of the film is between Katherine and Caroline Morton (Amy Ryan), the new head of the network who wants to hire an obnoxious frat-boy comedian as Katherine’s replacement. It’s a little exhilarating to see two women go head-to-head over professional ambitions, with nary a man in sight.
Additionally, Kaling brings intersectional feminism into the mix not just by telling Molly’s story or hiring another Indian woman to direct her film, but by making fun of white people in the most tongue-in-cheek way possible. To spice up Katherine’s show, Molly creates a segment where Katherine goes out on the streets and “helps” people of color with their problems of the day. The title of the segment? “White Savior.” Genius.
All in all, Late Night ultimately succeeds because it takes the formula of a romantic comedy and transfers it to the relationship between two professional women. Even Molly’s romantic interest subverts the blueprint, proving himself to be charming trash instead of Prince Charming, and though it’s not the film’s priority at all, she ends up with a partner who respects her and in turn earns her respect.
Amazon shelled out the big bucks because they knew Late Night was a winner. It’s not like Amazon needs your money, but writers like Kaling and directors like Ganatra do need your support. This is the film that deserves your time this weekend. No matter your taste in comedy, this one will put a smile on your face.