Sundance 2019: Mindy Kaling's 'Late Night' is a Refreshing Comedy
by Alex Billington
January 26, 2019
Great comedy requires great writing. And great writing comes from honest, intelligent people, who take all they've experienced in life, and figure out how to make us laugh. Late Night is a new comedy premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, directed by Nisha Ganatra (Chutney Popcorn, Fast Food High, Cake), from a screenplay written by the talented comedian / actress / writer Mindy Kaling. Kaling borrows from her own real life experiences working as a writer for television, and gives us a story about a sodden, compassionless, aging, bitchy late night talk show host named Katherine Newbury - played perfectly by the always-incredible Emma Thompson. She's the only female late night host in town, something she is very proud of, but her ratings have going down. And she's nearing the end unless hiring a female writer might make a difference.
That's the basic setup for Late Night - a crowd-pleasing, thoroughly enjoyable, refreshing comedy about a late night host who has her show and routine, and entire life, shaken up by this newcomer. Mindy Kaling also stars in the film as Molly Patel, the woman who is hired as the new writer despite no experience. She challenges their ways by modernizing her show, encouraging more honest expression, adding more relevant jokes, and forcing Katherine to confront her own issues as a bitchy, frustrated egomaniac who doesn't care much for other people. It's a bit campy, more mainstream than expected (crowd-pleasing), but I don't even care - I really love this film. It's enjoyable and smart and refreshingly clever, with excellent performances all around. Emma Thompson is a goddess (but we all know that) and commands this rowdy role so effortlessly.
Above all, it's the screenplay that is the most impressive part of this film. Kaling's writing here is fantastic. So refreshing, and funny, and smart, cuts right through the bullshit. She cleverly and succinctly addresses a great amount of societal problems in the refined script - between misogyny, harassment, workplace idiocy, stubbornness, infidelity, income equality, and more. And she handles it all with such grace and confidence, showing us the correct way to deal with many of these unnecessarily challenging situations but without the film feeling too heavy-handed or preachy. It's that approach, and that unashamed directness and Kaling's comedic sensibility, that accentuates the story and makes it so refreshing. And we get to enjoy it even more following the characters as they navigate contemporary life (in New York) and the entertainment business.
In all truth, this isn't the most spectacular film to come out of Sundance but that's not even an issue. It's not perfect, occasionally dipping into cliches, getting a bit cheesy at times, with some story beats that aren't as inspired as the comedy and dialogue. But it's easy to ignore all this, and it's so fulfilling as a modern comedy anyway. Emma Thompson totally rules with this role as the tough host, who meets her match with Kaling's Molly. The rest of the cast is also serviceable - including small roles from John Lithgow and Amy Ryan, and good supporting performances from Denis O'Hare and Paul Walter Hauser. If this film connects with audiences it can actually make a difference, actually cause change, and that's the best thing that could happen. It has that potential to do so because it tackles topics with such ease and makes us laugh and smile.
Alex's Sundance 2019 Rating: 8.5 out of 10
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