by Rob DiCristino
Those with even a cursory knowledge of Late Night writer/star Mindy Kaling’s career will appreciate the uphill battle her character faces in her latest film. After making her bones as an actor/director/writer/producer on The Office, Kaling found even greater recognition as the creative force behind The Mindy Project and with memoirs like Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? All along, Kaling has spoken out about how difficult it is for a short-statured Indian-American woman to find efficacy and respect in Hollywood’s boy’s club; the supposed meritocracy is actually a deeply incestuous circle-jerk of Harvard-educated white men bouncing from one writer’s room to another. The same jokes in the same way. No risks. No innovation. An impenetrable closed loop of adequacy and privilege.
Molly’s welcome is less than warm. Opportunistic climbers like Charlie and Tom (Hugh Dancy and Reid Scott), blind to the cultural prejudices that allowed for their success, argue that Molly’s position is unearned and illegitimate. Wallflowers like Burditt and Mancusco (Max Casella and Paul Walter Hauser), eager to tread water until retirement, are terrified that Molly’s spotlight will raise expectations for their creative output. Most of all, Newbury herself is outraged by Molly’s implication that her show is stale, that her job should require any more than the most casual engagement with the unwashed plebeians who tune in for her pithy bullshit. Molly’s genuine eagerness to work hard and self-reflect pokes a hole in the bloated, self-perpetuating, too-big-to-fail corporate hegemony that has allowed these people to rest on laurels they’ve barely even earned.
While mostly successful, there are times where Late Night oversteps its narrative goals in favor of messaging. A subplot involving Newbury’s affair with Charlie — a brief refuge from her husband’s (John Lithgow) Parkinson’s diagnosis — forces an examination of double-standards and slut shaming into a story that doesn’t really need it. As a result, Lithgow and Thompson share some very good scenes that feel thematically empty when considered next to the rest of the film. It’s more than understandable that Kaling would want to address these issues in this particular context — certain moments have a kind of “and while we’re at it…” ring to them — but Late Night’s few missteps tend to fall from that tree. Molly’s romantic and familial subplots are underdeveloped, as well, and feel like concessions to the very genre tropes that Late Night had been so skilled at avoiding.