The Movie Guru: “Late Night” builds on girl-in-New-York trope
When it comes to movies, it’s always a delight to be surprised.
“Late Night,” starring Mindy Kaling and Emma Thompson, is a wonderfully unexpected entry into the small-town-newbie-struggling-to-make-it-big-in-New-York category. Though it starts out with the classic genre trope, it slowly starts spreading its wings. By the end, the movie has transformed into a story of friendship, love and how much we all need each other.
It starts as many similar films do, with the Bright Young Thing taking her first tentative steps into the big city. Molly (played by Kaling) gets a job as a writer for a late-night show helmed by Katherine (played by Thompson). Katherine’s once popular show has been in a slump for the last decade, sinking dramatically in the ratings, and Molly ends up being a key part of her efforts to fight back. When personal issues get in the way, however, both women have to decide what truly matters.
Though the first half of the movie is an utterly standard version of the “make it in New York” story, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The old, clichéd stories are only old and clichéd for white characters, especially white males. The mere combination of Mindy Kaling as the screenwriter and star with Nisha Ganatra as the director make this a vital update. Add in the fact that it’s a well-made movie, and there would have been nothing wrong with it even if it had continued along those lines.
But I love the movie so much more when it spreads its wings. The dynamic between Katherine and Molly is a far cry from mentor and mentee — if anything, Molly learns more about the business from the team she works with. However, the two women do offer a rich exploration of what women need from one another as both friends and associates. They also show that we get it wrong when we project our understanding of the world onto other people, an idea they explore from multiple directions.
They also have interesting things to say about marriage and romantic relationships. None of it is easy or clear-cut, but the results are moving and surprisingly sweet. There’s also a bit that feels like a very specific dig at the jerky boyfriends that often appear in the “girl in New York” movies. I don’t know if it was meant as one, but I found it deeply satisfying just the same.
Kaling is the ideal leading lady for this type of movie. Her performance makes Molly’s growth feel organic without compromising who she is. Thompson, who definitely ranks as co-leading lady, is even more fantastic. Though never nice, or even particularly likeable, she makes her character rich and engaging. Reid Scott is also surprisingly good as the lead writer, Molly’s major antagonist in the movie. He’s the rare jerk written with actual nuance and development, and Reid handles it all beautifully.
Together, they turn something that seems simple into unexpected cinematic magic.
Jenniffer Wardell is an award-winning movie critic and member of the Denver Film Critics Society. Find her on Twitter at @wardellwriter or drop her a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.