About ten minutes into Mindy Kaling’s “hilarious” comedy Late Night, after about the twelfth pudding-soft joke, I began to have flashbacks. Ah, I thought, so this is why I stopped watching network sitcoms. Cute contrivances, gags beaten to death, weak one-liners, thin characters. I laugh more in any five minutes of Catastrophe or Veep than I did in this entire movie.
Kaling spent several years making one of those network sitcoms I’m not sure anybody watched, The Mindy Project, and has brought that housebroken, room-temperature, network-TV spirit to her script for Late Night. Am I meant to grade this movie on a curve because it’s made by women of color (the director is Nisha Ganatra) and it contains lots of you-go-girl moments? I decline to do so. I don’t think being a woman of color constitutes such a handicap that we should cheer anyone so hobbled who manages to crawl across the finish line. Hollywood, it’s your job to wow us, not our job as viewers to “be supportive.” We’re your customers not your parents.
I like Kaling, though. She exudes sweetness. She seems really nice. It’s easy to root for her on the screen. She plays a ludicrously unqualified woman of color working in a chemical plant who breaks into comedy writing as the diversity hire on a talk show hosted by a British shrew (Emma Thompson). This isn’t a particularly grabby premise.
All would be forgiven if Late Night were funny. It isn’t, most of the time. Its structure is boringly predictable. In some ways it is incoherent. Thompson’s character, Katherine, is presented as both an unfunny hack and also as a comedy legend who has a shelf full of Emmys. She’s gratuitously mean to everyone, she’s bad at her job (entertaining people) because she’s too snooty to pay attention to popular culture — and yet we’re supposed to be pained at the prospect of her being fired and replaced by a young, vulgar comic played by Ike Barinholtz? She’s female, he’s male. Kaling thinks this is reason enough to take her side instead of his. Really, though, who cares? The movie’s central conflict is trivial. And Ganatra, the director, is so clumsy that she tries to pump up the lame gags by showing people chuckling at them, which amounts to laughing at her own jokes.
Why am I even bothering with this movie? Because it was positioned as a very big deal. Heaped with praise at the Sundance Film Festival, it sparked a bidding war won by Amazon, which paid $13 million for it. At sea level, post-festival hype, that figure looks like considerably more than it’s worth. Late Night cannot answer the most basic, indeed, existential question about it, which is: Why is this a movie? Why not just dump it on a TV streaming service? Why would anyone go to the trouble of leaving the house and paying $15 for something that offers a handful of laughs and is, at best, pleasant and formulaic?
Amid the so-so jokes, Kaling sprinkles in some half-hearted social posturing. She is not an original enough thinker to come up with any new angles (such as the #NotMe movement imagined on Veep, where women went public to deny receiving sexual attention from the geeky Jonah Ryan). Instead, there is a lot of clichéd moaning and groaning about “representation” that is exactly at the finger-wagging level of the columns that appear regularly in the Hollywood trades. The writing staffs of television shows are too white, and too male, for Kaling’s taste. Never mind that, in the context of the movie, Molly has absolutely not earned her tryout in the writers’ room: She wants to be joined by others like her who also haven’t paid their dues. Come to think of it, there’s a not-terribly-subtle implied message for film critics, who also tend to be white and male: Acknowledge your privilege! Kaling demands. If you don’t praise my film, you are culturally insensitive.
This is a scam. It’s how progressives beat other progressives about the face and neck with a broken bottle of progressive malt liquor. Semi-anonymous critics living in bedsits in East Squalorville should not take the bait and mistake themselves for mighty cultural titans who should fear to bully the likes of Kaling, who recently sold one of her L.A homes for $2 million, leaving her with only one other L.A. house and a New York City apartment, both of which appear fairly posh in the design magazines where they’ve been featured. Kaling’s character, Molly, informs one of the white, male TV writers that all he had to do to succeed was “be born.” Kaling is the daughter of an architect and an obstetrician, but, whatever, she’s right: I was hired for this job straight out of the maternity ward. I feel so guilty.
Kaling works up a half-hearted romantic subplot about Molly’s dating misadventures that fizzles out, imagines a fired late-night talk-show host can outwit the network suits by simply refusing to leave her chair, and has Katherine revamp her act by switching modes from third-rate Jay Leno to second-rate Samantha Bee. That might work, given how small an audience you need these days to be considered a late-night success, but it isn’t what you’d call an insight, much less one interesting enough to build the climax of a movie around.
At the end we’re meant to stand up and cheer because Molly has succeeded in teaching Katherine the movie’s big lesson: that television writing staffs should be diverse. Assuming you’re not actually in the tiny cohort of people hoping to land such a job, though, you probably don’t much care. Hollywood is a fantasyland in more ways than one: It imagines the rest of us must be fascinated by its human-resources policies.