Mindy Kaling is one of Hollywood’s versatile talents because she’s more than just an actress. Kaling, who’s best known as Kelly Kapoor on the widely-loved The Office and as Dr. Mindy Lahiri on The Mindy Project, has been credited as a writer, director and producer over the years for various projects. Her latest project is Late Night, which she wrote, while Nisha Ganatra directed. Late Night won over critics after it premiered last January at the Sundance Film Festival and its distribution rights were sold to Amazon Studios for a massive $13 million.

Late Night is a comedy which takes place within the highly competitive talk show circuit and it offers an inside look at that world as long-time host Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) works to save her show from sinking ratings and possible replacement. She hires a new writer, Molly Patel (Kaling), and as the only woman on the writing staff, she has form a working relationship in a male-dominated field despite obvious differences.

At one time, Kaling interned on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, and I’m sure she used some of her experiences there to help write Late Night. Late Night is a member of the ever increasing female-centric features that includes more than one female character. More importantly, the female characters use normal everyday dialogue that doesn’t center on talking about a man. Kaling’s script is an earnest look at the traps and pitfalls women have to constantly maneuver just to be noticed and accepted. What’s fantastic with Late Night is Kaling imagines a world with a female late night talk show host (the closest we’ve seen in real life is Joan Rivers) whose desire for perfection makes her one of the meanest shrews since Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada. Katherine is unapologetic, demanding and unsympathetic, but those qualities, and her refusal to acknowledge and book relevant pop culture guests (like the vulgar but popular stand-up comedian Daniel Tennant, played by Ike Barinholtz), has left network chief Caroline Morton (Amy Ryan) no choice but to pull Katherine once the season ends.

Obviously, Katherine is set in her ways and isn’t open to opinions from anyone except her sweet husband, Walter (John Lithgow), so a rookie writer like Molly, with zero professional writing experience, is that last person she wants to take direction from. Molly is idealistic and in awe of Katherine, and is admittedly a big fan, so she should be a breath of fresh air to Katherine and a jaded writing staff that’s underappreciated and abused. Instead, Molly is looked down upon, especially from Reid Scott (Tom Campbell), head writer and sole monologue writer. Kaling incorporated a “me against the world” mentality within Late Night, which looks fresh coming from the perspective of a woman whose parents emigrated from India.

Late Night is a comedy but it’s also a drama that takes advantage of its opportunity to comment on the state of the male-female dynamic within the workplace. Molly may have bitten off more than she can chew and she has to contend with entitled men who are as politically correct as saying 2 + 2 = 5. It’s all used perfectly to set up a savior trope that is not only used to save Katherine and the show, but Molly, too. It’s an interesting duality which accomplishes the rare feat of allowing the protagonist to grow in lieu of her own actions.

Late Night’s best performance comes from Thompson – she’s strong and stands out in a world that normally doesn’t allow women to do so. But because she’s a woman she suffers harsh criticism throughout. Her actions would likely be applauded (at least accepted) if it were a man in her shoes, but despite her years as a late night talk show host Katherine is nothing more than a cold witch when she does something wrong. It’s an unfair world Katherine and Molly live in, but they’re making the best of it by being the strong, intelligent women they are.

Kaling, besides having women contend with men, uses Late Night to have Katherine and Molly butt heads. What’s great is that Katherine and Molly’s aren’t fighting for the same man’s attention; nor are they competing for the same job. They are two individuals who happen to be women, each with different ideas on how to save the show. Katherine is forced to acquiesce because she realizes that Molly has something to offer. And since their backgrounds are different, Molly can offer new and exciting material which can allow the show to not only survive but thrive. It’s all part of an interesting give and take that goes beyond the employee-boss dynamic.

Like Booksmart, Late Night is another female-led, female-made title that stands out from the rest of the pack. Kaling scripted a story that’s humorous without being mean-spirited (although it gets snarky when it needs to be) and provides organic emotion through relatable drama. It’s one of the better comedies this year and provides outstanding performances from Thompson, Kaling and Lithgow.

4 stars out of 5


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