One of the coolest scenes in “Late Night" is when Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) is interviewing a young woman from a teen vampire soap and the actress, obviously impressed with being onstage with the comic legend, admits that her movie is just a guilty pleasure. Katherine leans back and declares that she doesn’t believe in guilty pleasures — just pleasure.
And what a pleasure “Late Night” is.
It’s not a perfect movie, though that hardly matters; it mentions mental health issues and then drops it, and there’s a subplot that feels jammed in there as a plot device. Movies by and about women — or basically anyone who doesn’t fit into the white-guy-failing-upward mold — are held to a higher standard than is reasonable. (Did we really expect “Booksmart” to make a dent in the box office opposite “Avengers: Endgame”? Was that ever even the point?)
Too few movies even dare to address intersectional feminism, never mind ageism, and “Late Night” does both unabashedly. I used to cringe when asking directors and actors about anything related to women’s rights, anticipating an interview cut short or angry emails from publicists later; now it’s a red-carpet talking point. It’s awesome to see the movie take the conversation even farther.
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Which is not to say the characters are committed feminists. Katherine, for instance, has a problem, and that problem is that she doesn’t like women, including herself. Frankly, she doesn’t seem to like much of anything except for her ailing husband Walter (John Lithgow) and the staid female politicians and intellectuals she foists on her increasingly small audience. When she gets the word from a female network executive Caroline Morton (Amy Ryan) that they’re giving her show to someone else, she doesn’t like that either — and it’s likely that being told by a woman a decade her junior added insult to padded shoulder-pad injury.
Part of the problem is that Katherine’s writing staff represents a rather homogenous slice of life — they’re all white guys — or that most of them haven’t even met her until she storms into a writers’ meeting. Obviously, the solution is diversity, an option that irks Katherine almost as much as the idea of being forced to perform carpool karaoke with her guests.
Enter Molly, played by Mindy Kaling, a wide-eyed employee of a chemical plant who’s savvy enough to parlay the few opportunities she’s given into a shot at her dream job. (Kaling also wrote the screenplay, infusing it with the same balance of effervescence and sharp insight as “The Mindy Kaling Show.”) Molly doesn’t care that she’s a token hire, just like Katherine wasn’t particularly concerned that she got her own start when she was a beautiful young ingenue nurtured by her talented older then-lover, Walter, who left his family for her.
“Late Night” suggests that life is about making the most of the slim chances you get. The question thereafter is whether or not you pull up the ladder behind you.
Molly, of course, gets the job by virtue of her gender (and, it’s implied, her skin color doesn’t hurt either), besting the snotty and equally unqualified little brother of a cute senior writer named Tom, played to smarmy perfection by “Veep’s” Reid Scott. Molly later happens upon Tom at a food truck grousing on his phone about the latest diversity hire — she’s probably a single mom, too, he complains — and he’s horrified and embarrassed to be caught red-handed. It’s not that he’s one of those annoying guys who’s got just enough feminism to extend to women he wants to sleep with, but that he believes he’s got it together enough to keep his biases mostly to himself until he’s around people of his own demographic.
However, the real danger explored by “Late Night” isn’t so much the dynamic between women and men but the intergenerational chafing between women.
The reason that Katherine’s show is flailing is because she isn’t talking to a wider audience; she’s only talking to herself. And she doesn’t even like herself! It’s the sort of faux intellectual solipsism that makes magazines fail because their editors look down on the Internet — or political movements to implode as we eat each other like hamster mothers with a few too many babies.
Molly, like Mindy on “The Mindy Kahling Show” and even Kaling’s beloved blog, threads the needle between enjoying pop culture “trash” and reciting William Butler Yeats when she’s feeling moved. Molly is a feminist, but not the capital-F feminist that read Germaine Greer at one of the Seven Sisters — more like the kind who enjoys live-tweeting “The Bachelor” knowing it’s a complete affront to humanity.
And Molly isn’t above biting back at those who dare to underestimate her — something she and Katherine have in common. Once Molly does stand up for herself, it causes a crack in Katherine’s façade, and their burgeoning professional relationship results in witty, politically savvy monologues about reproductive rights and menopause, and even an on-the-street segment called “White Savior,” where, in one clip, Katherine uses her power as a rich white lady to hail cabs for young Black men. Getting Katherine to take herself way less seriously and to be honest with herself and her audience is a huge step in reviving her show, her career, and herself, but also the people around her.
Not all women of Katherine’s generation see other women as rivals, of course. There are plenty of amazing businesswomen who have made it a point to lift up other people who also started playing with the deck stacked against them. I’d argue that Thompson and some of her colleagues are also doing quite a bit of good by calling out industry failings when they see them and daring to age in public, even with the sort of help that lots of money can offer.
As a woman in her forties, I’m no stranger to ageism, and there’s something deeply satisfying about seeing Emma Thompson on a movie poster. But “Late Night” goes beyond the “Lean In”-style white feminism we’re used to in the media and extends the ladder down to an even more diverse and creative group of people. Because it’s even more satisfying to see Mindy Kaling on a movie poster with Emma Thompson, and getting equal billing.
Jenni Miller is a freelancer writer who covers movies, TV, sex, love, death, video games, and assorted weirdness for a variety of publications online and in print.