Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling) is desperate to get into comedy writing. She’s just secured her first job in the industry on the once illustrious, but now struggling, Late Night with Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson). Newbury is facing replacement and needs to recognise that the world has changed and that she has lost her way. Will Molly be able to overcome the prejudices of her colleagues, and her own insecurities to successfully show Newbury the way and save the show?
Mindy Kaling is excellent as the opinionated newcomer. She finds the perfect blend of uncomfortable fish out of water and messianic saviour with an important message for everyone to come to terms with. She’s funny, relatable and suitably dorky when she needs to be. It’s a very endearing performance.
Thompson is doing a fairly familiar Emma Thompson performance, with hints of Miranda Priestly. She’s an interesting character; a high profile female professional who may be a sexist. But she often just feels needlessly mean spirited. This feels like a critique or caricature of a boss figure, without much insight into why she’s like this or any kind of struggle she is experiencing. She can, however, be amusing in her vitriol. Sometimes she just feels like a Sorkin Pastiche. It’s a little harder to buy her as a stand-up legend. It’s Molly who has the natural humour.
The central conflict of the film is that of toxic work environments and the controversy around ‘diversity hires’. These are very important topics and the overwhelming experience of the film is frustration. The double standards that Molly is subjected to, the all-too-familiar hostility she faces from entitled male coworkers, but also the relief of finding allies and just basic friendly conversations. Of course, by the end of the film, most of these barriers have been overcome and everyone works together in harmony. A slightly simple narrative, but it’s always encouraging to see characters prevail simply by being themselves.
The only drawback is the content of the show itself. There’s a curious effect in film whereby any live performance of comedy either stand-up or other is incredibly unfunny. Otherwise excellent and even humour films often feature bad comedy performances (see The Big Sick). Hear the monologues that form the focus of the film are nowhere near as amusing as the character moments found off stage. Perhaps it’s because stand up and performance comedy needs to be practised and trialed with several audiences to be effective. Perhaps it’s the unmistakable artifice of those sequences. The laughter often sounds dubbed or on cue. There’s no imperfection, no lone laugher or obnoxious laugher or cougher or heckler. The audience do not feel real, so the jokes do not feel real.
Otherwise, this is a very entertaining film with a great central performance and a timely message. It makes many wry observations about casual sexism and racism in the workplace and is as funny as it is pertinent.