Mindy Kaling's Late Night Is the Flip Side to The Devil Wears Prada I Didn't Know I Craved
Movies about female ambition have often been cautionary tales (The Devil Wears Prada) or smokescreens for romance (Working Girl.) With the charmingly subversive Late Night, writer and costar Mindy Kaling and director Nisha Ganatra celebrate women striving, without falling prey to either device.
In Late Night — which sold for a then-record-breaking $13 million at Sundance — Kaling plays Molly, a hyperambitious, young comedy writer. Emma Thompson stars as Katherine, the shrewd, viciously funny host of a long-running, late-night show. After Katherine hires Molly in a transparent attempt to add "diversity" to her all-white, all-male writers' room (including Hugh Dancy, Reid Scott, and John Early), a string of professional and personal events test both women's devotion to their careers and principles.
Late Night is a love letter to female ambition: to striving, to building a life around a passion even if it's your career instead of marriage and motherhood, to shamelessly trying really, really hard.
Late Night is a love letter to female ambition: to striving, to building a life around a passion even if it's your career instead of marriage and motherhood, to shamelessly trying really, really hard. (As Kaling herself quipped at a panel at Sundance's Stella Film Lounge after the film festival's screening of the movie: "I think 'effortless' is one of the most overrated adjectives of all time. What's wrong with effort?") And while career is the key storyline for both characters, it is a Mindy Kaling project, so romance is not entirely absent. It's so peripheral, though, that one sly nod to two characters' relationship toward the end of the movie struck me as both unearned and unnecessary.
For all its joyful celebration of doing the thing you love and building a meaningful life around it, Late Night also manages to mostly avoid the dangerous "work above all else" mentality that has fueled a growing conversation about millennial burnout. In one scene, when Katherine demands Molly stay late at work and miss a charity event she promised to host, Molly refuses to back down.
One of Late Night's strengths is in its timely, cutting barbs about racism, politics, misogyny, and sexual harassment that are illuminating but, in true Kaling form, come from a goodhearted place. My one minuscule complaint about Late Night is that Kaling's relentlessly positive worldview can sometimes verge on the slightly naïve. In this movie, people change, and the people they've hurt or offended forgive them, and it's suggested that a utopia of racial and gender equality can be achieved in the workplace if only individuals try harder, together.
But the primary feeling I felt when watching Late Night — a movie that costars a woman of color and a woman over 50, that cheers on women who go for it, that has nuance and a point of view on #MeToo and gender and ageism — was joy, mixed with a little vindication.
In one scene I keep thinking about, Katherine, in full self-pitying mode, insists to her husband (John Lithgow) that her show has to be great because it's her "legacy." After all, she never had children. "You didn't want them," he reminds her in a tone that makes it clear she's being disingenuous. She raises an eyebrow in acknowledgment. And that's about it. Never in the film is Katherine's childlessness portrayed as actually sad or pathetic; in fact, that moment is the only time it's addressed. Did I mention that Katherine is portrayed as, and, obviously is, wildly sexy and charismatic? Often not despite, but because of, her age?
In Late Night, Katherine ends her late-night show each night by saying, "I hope I've earned the privilege of your time." With Late Night, Katherine (and Thompson and Kaling and Ganatra and the cast and crew) certainly do.
Stella Artois and Women in Film provided POPSUGAR with travel and accommodations at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.