You’re a little old and a little white.
You can imagine how this film would have gone had a white male wrote it. The affirmative action jokes would play strictly for laughs rather than poignant introspection. The strong woman television host would use masculine tropes to service her goals rather than understand that a double standard can’t be weaponized in ways that end up affirming said double standard. And the idea that the fish-out-of-water newcomer entering the fray to shake the status quo could potentially date the “hot” co-worker would become an endgame perk rather than a distraction for not one but two teachable moments. Its script would be identical in structure and conclusion, but imbued with vastly different intent and purpose. What better example of the power of inclusivity in Hollywood exists than that?
Does this automatically make Late Night a great film? No. It is, however, a pretty good conversation starter for the talking points on gender and race in the workplace that screenwriter Mindy Kaling includes within its otherwise conventional narrative. Because Nisha Ganatra‘s direction isn’t flashy and the ensemble cast is game if undercooked, those moments wherein Kaling attacks complacency, entitlement, and earnestness become crucial for success. The slightness of the whole might hurt those goals from achieving the impact you’d hope, but it doesn’t diminish the heart that’s gone into presenting it to wide release audiences. While letting white America acknowledge its privilege and understand that hard work and empathy can help negate it seems safe compared to fully tearing them down, it proves an effectively nuanced maneuver.
Just as you could imagine how things would go when driven by a white male, you probably have an assumption as far as how things would transpire with a person of color at the helm. Kaling flirts with going to extremes—her character Molly Patel is an antithesis to the white Ivy League-coached road towards accomplishment considering she lacks any experience and truly did get her position to open these white liberal elites’ eyes by sheer happenstance as a throwaway diversity hire—but does ultimately hold back if only because she continuously lets jokes land before moving to the next topic as though the previous one had been instantly and sufficiently solved. There’s plenty of that mainstream sitcom appeasement built-in and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s intentional.
This sort of baby step process works to lure unsuspecting bigots in so they can laugh at the comeuppance of characters mirroring their own abhorrent behavior and perhaps learn something. Kaling therefore toes the line to never alienate her audience. She makes the “boy’s club” of writers (led by Reid Scott‘s Tom, Hugh Dancy‘s Charlie, Max Casella‘s Burditt, Paul Walter Hauser‘s Mancuso, and John Early‘s Reynolds) sympathetically endearing even if some of it is enforced by a bad stereotype wherein their female boss is “emasculating” them. The latter (Emma Thompson‘s Katherine Newbury) is purposefully stuffy and obstinate to show how the patriarchy stole what made her uniquely special and thus isn’t permanent. And Molly enters with outsider optimism and fire to prove she belongs despite her backhanded “advantage.”
Is this “can’t we all get along” theme sufficiently potent for today’s polarized world? That’s up to you. Does Kaling let white America off the hook by letting Molly be their POC savior? Maybe. It’s difficult to call the result toothless, however, when there are many instances of commentary that leave a mark. Whether it’s an opening interaction between Katherine and a writer wherein she calls out his reasoning for a raise as hypocritical considering it’s a key reason why women have traditionally been refused higher wages or Molly confronting how she “earned” her job with as little merit as the men, there’s a lot to chew on. Could these lessons hit even harder if Late Night didn’t always work towards a saccharinely communal catharsis of equality? Yes.
It’s quite entertaining nonetheless. By having an Indian-American woman who works quality control at a chemical plant sit at a writers table of seasoned, “sanctioned” white male veterans is a perfect scenario for culture clash. Add the generational divide between an aging host and a younger audience less interested in conversations with bona fide heroes than bits involving YouTube personalities and there’s plenty of pop culture satire to go along with the underlying civil rights issues. If Kaling does anything better than the rest, though, it’s allowing the punch line female characters (ratings-driven guests judged by sexist and elitist preconceptions) to subvert tropes and show the artistic intent behind commercial appeal. It’s such a small piece of the whole and yet it sticks with you.
The film also excels at an authenticity in relationship dynamics. When two consenting adults begin an affair only to find out monogamy wasn’t in the cards, there doesn’t need to be some grand gesture of contrition or forgiveness or acceptance. Most of the drama is steeped in the tough decisions we make that deal in compromise rather than black or white rigidity and a lot of the conflict manifests internally from self-implosion or petty revenge in order to provide room for growth above blind animosity. The notion that Katherine is battling depression should have been broached earlier to make her awakening more substantive than the backed into a corner response it proves, but I like that there’s a want for complexity despite simple premises often denying its exposure.
In the end Late Night does teach inclusivity and diversity as a means of reinvigorating creativity. Would Molly’s arrival have gotten the job done if not for the added pressure of everyone getting fired once station executive Caroline Morton (Amy Ryan) replaces her venerated host with an insidiously xenophobic misogynist (Ike Barinholtz) who gets the benefit of the doubt those aforementioned female guests don’t? I’m not sure. Kaling and Ganatra would have needed to go for the jugular in those circumstances because the level of clarity achieved wouldn’t be believable without that selfish need to stay employed. This additional contrivance therefore lets them dial back and play it safe to cast a wider net. They fall short of their potential, but the good still easily outweighs the bad.
 Emma Thompson in Late Night Credit: Emily Aragones, Courtesy of Amazon Studios
 Mindy Kaling in Late Night Credit: Emily Aragones, Courtesy of Amazon Studios
 Reid Scott and Mindy Kaling Credit: Emily Aragones, Courtesy of Amazon Studios