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Kaling, Thompson fuel ‘Late Night’ comedy

Dan Webster

Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling star in "Late Night," the comedy that Kaling wrote and which I reviewed from Spokane Public Radio:

On first glance – and by glance I mean watching the trailers, which tend to play what seems like a trillions times before any movie actually opens – “Late Night” looks like your standard romantic comedy.

Written by Mindy Kaling and directed by Nisha Ganatra – both of whom boast credentials tied largely to television – “Late Night,” in various ways, follows a standard plotline: Kaling plays Molly Patel, whose desire to become a comedy writer leads to her being hired onto the staff of longtime late-night TV host Katherine Newbury (played by Emma Thompson).

And of course Molly faces the standard obstacles: feeling resentment from the other, established writers; weathering an ill-advised flirtation; experiencing a reckoning with her boss followed by a put-up-or-shut-up moment in which she has to figure out how to save her burgeoning career … et cetera, et cetera. 

But here’s where “Late Night” goes off in its own, separate direction: Instead of it being simply Molly’s story – one that explores her ethnic roots (Kaling herself is first-generation Indian-American) and all the standard culture-clash clichés involving marital practices and food, religion and more – the film’s love affair, platonic as it is, involves Molly and Katherine.

It’s through their relationship that Kaling provides us a larger view of what women experience in the working world of today – and not just in the world of TV comedy.

For just as Molly is facing challenges, so is Katherine. Cast in a role that has happened in real life only on occasion – Joan Rivers as a temporary host of the “Tonight” show comes to mind – Katherine is at a crossroads: She’s grown too old for and too removed from her audience. Even when she attempts to bridge her middle-age interests with the Twitter crowd, she stumbles – earning her a fair share of social-media scorn.

It’s up to Molly, then, to emerge with the solution: She is the one who can see how to blend Katherine’s more obvious traits – her age, her status as a privileged white person – with her innate comic talents.

None of this is wildly different from what, for example, you might see on a typical TV sitcom – though, thankfully, “Late Night” doesn’t punish us with a laugh track. And Kaling’s screenplay wisely doesn’t dwell overly long on any one plot point, including Katherine’s marriage (to a character played perfectly by John Lithgow), which both gives us a view of her softer side and provides Molly the insight she needs to effect the show’s needed changes.

None of this would work as well without the right cast. I’ve already described Lithgow as perfect, and Thompson, too, has never been better, which is not overstating things even given her long and worthy career. Kaling, best known for her work on the American version of the sitcom “The Office” and for her own Hulu series “The Mindy Project,” is just what she needs to be: both naïve and knowing.

And, ultimately, it’s how she bonds Molly and Katherine – and melds them into a kinder version of reality – that makes “Late Night” the pleasant and timely summer comedy that it is.

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