Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson), a late night talk show host, has her world is turned upside down when she hires Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling), her first and only female staff writer. Originally intended to smooth over diversity concerns, her decision brings about unexpectedly hilarious consequences as the two women who are separated by culture and generation become united by their love of a biting punchline.
In Late Night, Katherine is television’s only female late night host, a blistering taskmaster who assigns her writing staff numbers in lieu of learning their names. When she is told by her network’s chief Caroline Morton (Amy Ryan) that her viewership has dropped so low that she will be replaced as anchor by the viral comedy wunderkind Daniel Tennant (Ike Barinholtz, perfectly odious), Katherine springs into action. She commands her chief of staff Brad (Denis O’Hare) to hire a female writer in a bid for relevancy.
And she informs her team of white men in polo shirts that they must devote their lives to saving her job. “When you masturbate,” Katherine tells them, “you will think about this show.”
Katherine is brash and bold and suffers no fools, and that one-time boss of mine was the same. I suppose, too, in some ways I was very much like Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling), the first-time writer hired in a fit of desperation to increase the quota of women and people of colour from zero to, well, more-than-zero.
Molly is an inspiration quote-posting, affirmation-repeating ray of positivity who arrives at Katherine’s offices on her first day with boxes of cupcakes for her largely unreceptive colleagues. (“I wish I was a woman of colour so I could get any job I want without qualification,” one staffer says.)
You can guess what happens next. Like workplace comedies Broadcast News and Working Girl and The Devil Wears Prada before it, Late Night is a romantic comedy in which a woman falls headfirst in love with her job. And we’re not just talking about Molly, who leaps into comedy and discovers that not only is this world of jokes and gags a passion of hers, she’s also bloody good at it. But Katherine, too, who through Molly’s drive rediscovers the thread that pulled her to comedy in the first place.
Kaling wrote the script expressly for Thompson and herself, inspired by her own early days of hard graft in the stand-up scene and being the only woman of colour on television shows like the US version of The Office.
Kaling is fantastic as Molly, imbuing her with all the spirit and wit of a woman grasping her dreams in both hands while, at the same time, terrified that those dreams might not come true. No wonder Molly spends most of the first half of the movie crying in the office bathroom. She wants to succeed and impress Katherine so much that when she falls short of her very high bar she feels crushed by the weight of her own ambition.
Have you ever cried over your job? I have. Many times. Late Night perfectly encapsulates what it’s like to be an ambitious woman, and it understands that, no matter what the self-help books tells you, there are some jobs that you love so much that the thought of losing them will make you cry and cry and cry.
The strength of Late Night is in the way that Kaling understands acutely how a woman’s relationship with her career can feel like a love story. The structure of Late Night is similar to a romantic comedy. There’s the meet-cute between Katherine and Molly that goes terribly wrong. (Molly spends her first day in the office sitting on an upended rubbish bin, because there isn’t a seat for her.) There’s the opposites-attract chemistry between Molly and Katherine as they spend their evenings in the office watching Katherine’s early stand-up routines and brainstorming jokes together.
There’s the roadblock in the relationship – Katherine’s affair with a younger writer is exposed, leading to a scandal for the network – and an initial separation between Molly and Katherine. And then, at the very end, there’s the great romantic comedy tradition of a grand gesture. Only this time instead of a man rushing through city traffic and falling to his knees in front of his love, it’s these two women moving towards each other and reaching a middle ground.
But we can’t talk about Late Night without talking about Thompson. The Oscar-winning actor turns in a flawless performance, one that modulates effortlessly between the laidback, self-deprecating humour of Katherine’s stand-up – “I’ll need a facelift to play the voice of a wise tree in a Pixar movie,” she says at one point – and the tenderness of her relationship with her ailing husband Walter (John Lithgow).
In any other actor’s hands, Katherine could have been a cliché of sternness and sharp edges. But, like Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly, Thompson’s Katherine is lived-in and three-dimensional and complex as hell. Katherine is not perfect – at times she is difficult and downright wrong. But that’s what makes her so compelling. It’s worth noting that, in preparation for the film, Thompson had to draw on female comics throughout history for inspiration because, in 2019, we are still yet to see a woman host a mainstream late night show.
Katherine’s brutal honesty with her staff – Katherine refuses to give a raise to a male staffer about to have a baby because it would be tantamount to “giving a raise to a drug addict” – is because she is acutely aware that the bar is so much higher for women. In order to be a success Katherine, and by extension Molly, have to work that much harder.
At one point in the film Katherine hires a publicist who tells her, po-faced, to grow her hair in order to appear more likeable. Katherine responds to that suggestion with a perfectly Thompson-ian withering stare in a moment that will bring a smirk to the face of every woman in the audience. Late Night is a reminder that a woman’s career can be one of the great loves of her life, and that she should never have to sacrifice success or standards in order to make herself more likeable.
As Brad tells Katherine, in one of the best lines in the movie: “We’re not here because you’re nice. We’re here because you’re good.”
Hannah-Rose Yee is a writer based in London. You can find her on the internet talking about movies, television and Chris Pine.
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