Comedy is a funny thing. Or, rather, it’s a strange thing to try and quantify, particularly as someone trying to communicate a joke’s quality through a review. Likely more than any other genre, comedies are subject to the individual tastes of the audience, dependent on the experiences we bring to the film and whether we personally relate to the content of the jokes the film throws at us. It’s with this in mind that I find myself of two minds about Late Night, the comedy about comedy writing, written by Mindy Kaling and directed by Nisha Ganatra. There are essentially two kinds of comedy attempting to co-exist within the framework of Kaling’s narrative, and it’s hard not to see the gap between the visceral pleasure of one to the sweet yet comically insubstantial purview of the other.
Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) is the only female late night talk show host in New York, and despite having spent a decade performing the nightly show, the format has grown stale, her condemnation for her guests has grown more apparent, and the audience has gradually filtered away. Realizing that her writers' room is filled entirely with white, ivy league men, she insists upon hiring a woman to bring a new perspective. Enter Molly Patel (Kaling), a plant worker with aspirations toward comedy who gets the job over the expected nepotistic choice of another writer’s brother and immediately finds herself thrust into a world where she has potential but no prior experience. Molly takes it upon herself to do what she can to improve the show, but not without Katherine pushing back against the change she apparently never felt she actually needed.
When Kaling's writing centers around stand-up bits or talk show comedy segments as performed by her characters, Late Night comes alive with biting social commentary and well-earned cynicism about our culture. Jokes about attacks on reproductive health, white saviorism, and generational aversion to change and adaptation play like gangbusters, making absurdist observations and reminding us that we aren’t delusional for finding the state of our culture so surreal. It works both within the context of Katherine’s condescending British wit and Molly’s earnest hopefulness, which shows the versatility of Kaling’s comedic takes on social issues.
Where Late Night doesn’t quite come together is as a character comedy, as the characters seem to largely exist separately from the wit they exhibit while performing in-universe. It all still remains perfectly charming, and the depths of the film’s character drama are heartfelt and occasionally moving. Thompson gives Katherine just enough of an acerbic edge that you recognize how unlikeable she is to those around her, but still subtly conveys the vulnerable humanity that this cantankerousness is meant to conceal. Kaling plays Molly with an intriguing mixture of wide-eyed sincere awe at the fortune of her life and bitter understanding of the extra work necessary to attain and retain it as a woman of color. The writers' room is populated by a variety of clowning personalities exhibiting varying levels of pretention, wit, and ego, but none feel like caricatures and all feel like people worth rooting for despite their blindness to their own privileges. Yet as compelling and sweet as these characters are, the jokes they bounce off one another outside the staged sets they are ostensibly writing just don’t carry the same level of observational barb or wit.
Objectively, I think Late Night is a very well-written and well-directed piece of character drama, giving us some insider commentary on the nature of comedy writing and offering us memorable takes on the industry from minority voices that until recently would have had a much harder time getting that perspective to a wide audience. Late Night never stops being enjoyable in that regard. But it might just be that the process of writing comedy is not as funny as the comedy written, or at the very least, it isn’t what I personally find as funny within the context of this film. Of course, your mileage may vary. But even when Late Night wasn’t making me laugh, it never stopped charming me, which is certainly worthwhile in its own right.
Late Night opens today in New York and Los Angeles, and nationwide on June 14, 2019.