Starring Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling, it’s a strange brew effectively allowing Thompson to star with Kaling under her wing. As screenwriter and co-star, Kaling has special insights as a writer and brings this to her performance, understanding the comedic undertones and character dynamic. It’s similar to 30 Rock, which mined the behind-the-scenes comedy and drama behind a Saturday Night Live type show. The star and co-lead dynamic echoes the special kinship between head writer, Liz Lemon, and boss, Jack Donaghy, played by Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin.
30 Rock launched Fey’s comedy career and perhaps Kaling saw Late Night as a way of catapulting her over the Hollywood wall from her supporting role in the US version of The Office. While better known as a writer, Kaling has been racking up film credits over the last decade and is quickly becoming a recognisable star thanks to her crossover from television. After clocking many smaller supporting parts over the years, she played Mrs Who in A Wrinkle in Time, joined the all-star, all-female cast in Ocean’s 8 and now stars opposite Thompson. Fey showed her star quality by brushing shoulders with veteran screen talent, Baldwin, while Kaling chose the legendary Emma Thompson as her on-screen “mentor”.
While Late Night‘s co-star pairing of Kaling and Thompson may seem bizarre, it informs the characters and works surprisingly well as comedy counterpoints. Kaling is mousey and sweet at first, revealing a more confident and defiant streak as Molly. Thompson, who is the film’s tough undercover star/co-star as Katherine Newbury takes on a hybridised mix of UK talk show host, Jonathan Ross, and The Weakest Link’s Anne Robinson. Nominated for a Golden Globe for her satirical performance, it’s refreshing to see her take on the career-first flash of a show biz icon. It’s always good to have John Lithgow in the wings to add some whimsy, while the charming Hugh Dancy and cutthroat Amy Ryan front a sharp ensemble.
“I don’t know how long I can keep smiling like this…”
From the outset, the idea of a long-running talk show host and their protege may have faint echoes of Trevor Noah’s remarkable takeover of The Daily Show. Carrying the same spirit of long overdue change under director, Nisha Ganatra, it may have been an inspiration. Late Night revels in its contemporary and fresh approach and handling of contentious gender, race and political issues. Talk shows are known for scouring current news for comedy material, yet the irony is that often the calling out and finger-pointing needs to start at home.
Using the platform of an all-male, all-white writing team working for a lone female Late Night talk show… it’s a great opportunity for Kaling to lampoon tired writing room and comedy cliches. Late Night ran the risk of becoming a preachy cringe fest, but is smarter than that, opting to peel away layers instead of alienating audiences. Talking about the ultimate meritocracy that is comedy, Kaling uses her collective talents to help empower, reset stereotypes and disarm the patriarchal perspective that still haunts comedy today.
Late Night does lose its way a bit in the second act, trying to balance its entertainment and message objectives, but it’s underpinned by strong performances. The battle of the sexes comedy is often laugh-out-loud funny and the “has-been” drama comes through strongly. While the co-lead pairing is unexpected and a little awkward as their stories compete for centre stage, it works surprisingly well. Kaling’s writing is brave, crisp, timely and fresh… tackling real issues with sensitivity without flaking out. It may lean quite heavily on it’s 30 Rock “inspiration” but keeps a good and consistent level of tension, humour and emotional connection.
The bottom line: Enjoyable