“You are a diversity hire. The important part is that you’re here now.”
Mindy Kaling knows a little bit about diversity hiring in the television industry and attempts to spread her wings a bit wider by staring in Late Night, an “inside baseball” look at the workings of a late-night talk show television program. Kaling not only stars in the independent film but was the writer as well. She certainly knows a thing or two about life behind the scenes on a television show. Her The Mindy Project has provided her with firsthand experience on that score. The film pulls in heavy hitters like Emma Thompson and John Lithgow, so there is no lack of star power to surround the young actress/writer in her first real chance at a prominent role in a feature film. So why does Late Night feel somewhat unfocused and incomplete? The answer might just lie at the feet of Mindy Kaling.
Kaling stars as Molly Patel, who works in a Pennsylvania chemical plant. Whatever you do, don’t call it a factory. She wins an essay contest that allows her to take full advantage of the fact that the plant’s parent company also happens to own a television network, where Molly’s idol, Emma Thompson’s Katherine Newbury, has reigned as the iconic host of Tonight With Katherine Newbury. She finagles an interview for a job writing on the show. She has absolutely no experience and absolutely no shot of walking into a plum job on a huge network production. That would very much be the truth, except Newbury has pretty much been coasting for the last decade, and she’s facing pressure from the network boss who wants to replace her with a young, edgy comic, Daniel Tennant, played with complete and intentional annoyance by Ike Barinholtz. Newbury also has a reputation of keeping women from important positions on the show in a rather hostile way. So she tells her aide that he has to hire a woman today or else. Enter Molly, who happens to be in the right place at the wrong time. In one of the film’s more unlikely devices, she gets hired for the job. Her starting day is a hallmark one for the show. Newbury makes her first-ever appearance in the writer’s room and is quickly bored with getting to know staff members, some who have been there for decades. She doesn’t even know one of her writers has been dead for five years. Too busy to learn anyone’s names, she assigns them numbers, and the film ends up delivering a litany of reasons why Newbury’s ratings keep dropping and painting her as a not-so-nice human being.
As the unlikely situations compound themselves, Molly gives Newbury some tough love that is eventually taken to heart, and before we know it Molly is given important duties such as co-writing the show’s monologue. It doesn’t endear her to her coworkers, and it doesn’t even make Newbury warm to her. But Molly finds ways to be indispensible and (again in an unlikely scenario) ends up saving Newbury and the show.
There are some genuine and nice comedic moments in the film, but Kaling’s inexperience shows, and the film never really sticks with any of its points long enough to completely connect with the audience. The film makes noises about exposing the lack of diversity in the entertainment industry, but never fully commits to the effort. The film pulls its punches, and every time the film threatens to make a point or develop a plot thread, everything gets thrown into another direction. Thompson’s performance is the real saving grace here. She keeps the film as focused as it can be with sheer force of will. It’s a complete dedication to the part, and the power of the personality she creates that saves the film. Kaling writes a lot about diversity here, but her own character is flaunted too much as token hire both on screen and off. She can’t seem to take advantage of the situation to break out of her television role. Instead it’s Mindy Does Late Night Television, and it’s a bit of a shame. Her coworkers never get as fully developed as they could have been. Again, it’s a good cast that gets cut off at the knees every time it gets interesting. It’s a nice group of characters with wonderful chemistry, but again the film pulls away without ever fully committing to whatever film it could have been. Flashes of what this film could have been exist in that writer’s room. This could have been for feature films what The Dick Van Dyke Show was for television. It’s a world Kaling knows, and it was gold. She either didn’t know how to mine it or was reluctant to do so. That’s the film I wanted to see. It doesn’t help that the wonderful John Lithgow is criminally underused here as Newbury’s ailing husband and once music great. In the end Molly is a bit of a forced character with too much of a heart of gold. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but your earnestness can be very hard to be around.”