Kaling’s ‘Late Night’ is the hit of Sundance
Film tackles issues of diversity, gender politics
PARK CITY, Utah – Leave it to Mindy Kaling to give this year’s Sundance Film Festival its first surefire hit.
The actress/writer touched down at the festival over the weekend to premiere her feminist workplace comedy “Late Night,” which she wrote, produced and stars in with Emma Thompson. She was greeted with an exuberant standing ovation when she walked on stage after a Saturday morning screening of the movie, scooped up hours earlier for a hefty $13 million by Amazon, which will release it in theaters later this year.
And judging by audience members’ riotous laughter throughout, Amazon could have a box-office winner in line with its last major Sundance buy “The Big Sick,” which made off with $42.9 million in 2017 on its way to an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay.
“Late Night” follows Katherine Newbury (Thompson), the caustic veteran host of fictional late-night show “Tonight,” who turns up her nose at YouTube celebrities and cutesy viral segments. (No, she has zero interest in washing a sheepdog with Robert Downey Jr., thank you very much.) Enter Molly (Kaling), a quality-control specialist at a chemical plant who wants to be a comedy writer, and winds up getting hired at “Tonight” for the sole reason that she’s a woman.
Although Katherine initially bristles at Molly’s earnest suggestions – she refuses to start a Twitter account or talk politics on air – the threat of losing her show to a smarmy shock comic (Ike Barinholtz) eventually forces her to change her tune.
Scintillating and razor-sharp, Kaling’s feature screenwriting debut wryly comments on gender politics and diversity in the workplace. But it also goes far beyond surface-level in its female empowerment, as Molly seeks to prove why she deserves a seat at the all-male writers’ room table, and challenge the patriarchal system that has kept her away from it.
Addressing the Eccles Theatre crowd during a post-screening Q&A, Kaling said “Late Night” isn’t inspired by her early days as a writer on NBC’s “The Office.” Instead, it stems from feeling underrepresented in the media as an Indian-American girl growing up in Boston.
“This is a film about being an outsider and a real fan of things, and I have seen so many great movies about young fans of comedy who are young white men,” Kaling said. “And when you don’t see yourself represented in film, you start to fall in love with whoever is out there. This comes from a real love and passion for movies that show that kind of outsider.”
“Late Night” boasts 95 percent positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, with critics singling out Thompson’s “dynamite” and “Oscar-worthy” performance. The actress looked to David Letterman as she prepared to play Katherine, who dismissively assigns her writing staff numbers rather than learn their names.
Although that particular character detail is not inspired by Letterman, “that is based on someone in Hollywood, whom I will never name but actually did that,” Kaling said. “There is a very famous comedy person who did that, so that is something I didn’t even have to make up.”
Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling) is an overly earnest, overachieving comedy writer in “Late Night,” who’s brought on as a diversity hire for a fading talk-show host.
Emma Thompson plays Katherine Newbury, a caustic veteran host who turns up her nose at YouTube celebrities and cutesy viral segments in “Late Night.”