I have a love/hate relationship with actress/writer Mindy Kaling. I’ve always loved her on The Office, and in my review of Ocean’s 8, I said I wished she had more to do. Yet when I panned A Wrinkle in Time (it was the worst movie of 2018), she said in multiple interviews that too many critics are old white guys (guilty as charged). Yet there were plenty of female critics, and some female critics of color, that disliked that awful film.
At CinemaCon a few months ago, my wife and I were so bummed that the only movie we had to miss was Late Night, because both Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling were going to be there talking about it. Yet it was the night my wife and I had tickets to see The Beatles Love show.
Having seen the screening a few weeks ago, I’m glad we didn’t skip Cirque du Soleil.
Kaling wrote the script, and she plays Molly Patel, who works at a chemical plant, and dreams of making it big in comedy. Yet just like the Sally Field character in the horrible movie about stand-up comedians (Punchline), we never really see signs of her being funny. Even the one clip of her doing stand-up (after losing a job), isn’t funny. In one of the first edgy jokes she writes (about old white Republicans writing laws on abortion, when they look like they’ve never been laid)…well, that’s an old Carlin gag. The film also needed a bit more character development. We know nothing about her motivations, or about the family she lives with.
So first, you have to get past the utterly preposterous way she lands the job writing for a late night show. That show, Late Night, is hosted by the legendary Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson), and it’s in the ratings dump. The network president (the always welcome Amy Ryan) is itching to fire her, and replace her with a younger, hip, frat-boy comedian (played by the always hilarious Ike Barinholtz, who isn’t as hilarious [on purpose] here).
The shame of it all is that the performances are stellar. It’s Kaling’s script that falters. In real life, she was an intern for Conan O’Brien, and a writer (the only female) and supporting character in The Office. She claims to have never experienced what her Late Night character has, which is fine. But for someone that wants to preach about diversity (who has made well over $25 million in this industry as a woman that is ethnic and overweight)…well, you better give us something with some bite. Get edgy. Don’t make a movie that might have been a powerful message 30 years ago. We don’t need to just see a Devil Wears Prada brought to comedy. And the key thing is “comedy.” It was my wife (so Kaling doesn’t have to think this is just the logic of an old white critic) that pointed out, “How can you have a roomful of writers, that isn’t saying or doing anything funny?”
I replied, “Well, I think that was their point. That these guys aren’t even trying anymore and that they don’t care about the show. That’s why the show is tanking.”
My wife continued, saying “I call BS on that. If you have funny people in a room, they at least sit around trying to make each other laugh, and they come up with funny things they riff on each other about.”
It was a decent point. One of the enjoyable things about the stand-ups that were featured in Funny People (Judd Apatow movie with Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen), even when they’re not on stage, they’re being humorous with each other and showing they have a quick wit.
All that being said, this movie isn’t awful. You just…don’t really laugh when you’re watching it. You smile a handful of times. You enjoy watching the characters (despite how cliche and formulaic it all is).
Since my wife loved Working Girl, I mentioned this reminding me a bit of that. It only made her angrier about this film. She said, “Why does a movie have to have a woman being a major bitch, only to be shown the error of her ways by her younger, inexperienced assistant?”
Aside from the George Carlin joke Kaling cribbed early in the film, she also uses another joke that’s a topic that’s been bandied about forever. Katherine talks about how the only part she would be cast in, is playing Sean Penn’s grandmother, in a film where he’s dating Emma Stone.
One of my pet peeves is dialogue that are things people have already talked/joked about many times (it’s one of my complaints about Almost Famous). The joke is made worse by Katherine pulling a Jay Leno, and explaining it, just in case there were people out there that didn’t get the fact that she’s only slightly older than Penn. If I wanted to explain even more about why that isn’t even the best premise for a joke, I’ll use the example of something I said in my review of As Good as it Gets (Jack Nicholson/Helen Hunt) 20 years ago. As annoying as it is for Hollywood to try and get us to buy into relationships with a woman that is half the age of her male love interest, the fact is…in real life, you sometimes see that. Go to Rancho Santa Fe and look at the rich old dudes there, and what the women look like that they’re with. And in an interview Kaling recently did (or maybe it was a scene in the movie, I can’t recall), she jokes about male action stars being so old, and how you’d never see Emma Thompson gunning down people with a machine gun (although we did see Helen Mirren doing that in Red, that’s a rare exception). Yet the reason for that is…audiences can believe someone that is the age of Liam Neeson, Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise, etc…being retired, but still being a great shot with a gun, or having these Navy SEAL skills that, at their advanced age, can still mess up a goon that doesn’t know what he’s doing. Folks, there’s a reason Hollywood does what it does, and it’s not just because they’re all out to keep women down. An example would be the movie Book Smart. It’s a smart, raunchy teen comedy. It got great reviews across the board (even from old, white male critics like myself). Yet it tanked at the box office. So…do you think studios are going to rush to do another movie like this with two female leads, or another Michael Cera/Jonah Hill (their Superbad had success, making $170 million in the U.S.). Book Smart has only made $9 million. It’s not about the gender, or the color of your skin. It’s about the color green. But I digress. That last paragraph was just to help explain things to Mindy Kaling, since she has a hard time grasping these concepts.
It also surprises me that Kaling, who seems like such a hip gal when she’s on talk shows, can’t write a script that doesn’t seem like a hack comedian wrote it. For example, she includes a joke about wearing a fancy dress to a dinner party — and not realizing the price tag is still on it. Also, we’re supposed to buy that Katherine doesn’t know one of her writers died 7 years ago, or that she gives the writers all numbers because she can’t remember their names. Oh, and there’s the scene where Molly doesn’t have a seat, so she dumps all the garbage out of a trash can to turn it upside down and sit on it. Are we really supposed to believe an intelligent adult would do this? Especially knowing what an evil jerk the boss is? Because of those types of scenarios, this whole thing just ended up feeling like a weak sitcom. That’s a shame, considering Kaling wanted this movie to be a message about diversity in the workplace.
There are also problems with the John Lithgow character. He’s a caring, piano playing professor emeritus, who brings some nice moments to the story. Yet, it’s hard to understand why he’d be married to such a monster, or at least never pull her aside and say “Why are you such a jerk to everyone?”
It’s also strange that Katherine doesn’t seem to understand some basic concepts — like the importance of a social media presence. That was one of the complaints about Jay Leno, when the network wanted to bring in the younger, hipper Jimmy Fallon. And it’s not that Leno didn’t understand that, he just didn’t do it. I find it much more enjoyable when a script isn’t patronizing to old characters in a movie. For example, The Intern with Robert De Niro. When the retired character goes back into the workforce and doesn’t understand how to turn on a computer, I was prepared for a bunch of fish-out-of-water jokes regarding him and the computer. Yet they didn’t do that, and it was a smart move. In this, Katherine just doesn’t understand why someone would watch YouTube videos of a goofy millennial doing cat videos.
Yet for all my complaining about the movie, you’re never bored watching it. Kaling is a likable character on screen, and has a few hip and funny moments. I still crack up thinking about her line, “Can I have the fired man’s seat?”
She talks about how Katherine doesn’t need a “tight five on menopause,” and there’s a cute scene about her roaming a mansion at a party and telling someone that spots her, “I wasn’t going to steal stuff.”
There was some talk about Gilda Radner and Mary Tyler Moore, which was perfect. Yet that just made me think of all the movies and TV shows about comedians, talk shows, or working women that have worked so brilliantly: Funny People, Obvious Child, Crashing, Sleepwalk With Me, 9 to 5, The Larry Sanders Show, The King of Comedy, The Big Sick, 30 Rock, and Working Girl, to name a few.
I”m not suggesting that this movie has to be as good as some of the best that have been made, and I do suggest you go see this, because you won’t be disappointed. I’m just someone that loves stand-up comedy and the late night shows too much to buy this premise (I’ve never met anyone else that has read both the books ‘Live From New York’ and ‘The Late Shift’). So this didn’t quite work for me (or my wife), but I’m sure it will for you.
2 stars out of 5.