A talk-show writer’s room is the new frontier in the fight for equality

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Late Night
Now playing

One of the better productions to emerge from the #timesup movement, Late Night benefits from a script trading on fairly original material.

Even better, there’s no preaching to the choir (*cough* Captain Marvel *cough*).

Late Night comes from a place of truth, namely Mindy Kaling’s experiences as an up-and-coming comedian. Kaling takes the drive for gender equality and brings it down to earth. Sure, an overhaul of hiring practices in the entertainment business was long overdue, but by no means is the last stage of the fight for equal opportunity. It’s barely the beginning.

The plot: Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson), the imperious host of a sinking talk show decides to solve the least pressing of her problems by adding Molly (Kaling) to her writing staff, thus addressing the lack of diversity among her employees. Turns out the presumed token hire has a few arrows in her quiver, and she brings Katherine’s edge out of retirement.

Even though, at least professionally, Molly is a godsend (she brings the Cartesian method to the writer’s room) the rookie and the vet clash often. The former has nothing to lose; the latter is about to be replaced by an Anthony Jeselnik-type. Yet they find common ground by navigating the hostile waters of institutional chauvinism.

Here is a confession: One of my all-time favorite movies is The Devil Wears Prada: Well-acted, tightly scripted and compulsively watchable. Late Night finds an extra layer to the contentious relationship between boss and subordinate. Both are multidimensional women constantly under siege. But for all that character depth, the film’s ambitions are too lofty to be well served and Late Night is never as funny or clever as it wants to be. A bit of standup with Emma Thompson that’s supposed to be revelatory comes across as stale.

Comedic material notwithstanding, Thompson is very strong here. Kaling play to her strengths (plucky, winning) and surrounds herself with a likeable cast — John Lithgow, Amy Ryan, Hugh Dancy — so much so, some members are underserved by the script. Dancy in particular as the proverbial “good guy” who’ more toxic than an admitted chauvinist feels like a wasted opportunity.

Pluses and minuses considered, Late Night gets a passing note, despite settling for a sum zero ending.

At least the notion that issues alone can sustain a movie is proved wrong.