This post contains spoilers for Late Night.
No one loves love more than Mindy Kaling. A February 2010 tweet of hers provides a good summary of her thoughts on the matter: “Valentines Day tomorrow gang. It’s Christmas for Mindy Kaling.” But to everyone’s surprise, Kaling’s feature screenwriting debut, Late Night, which she also produced and co-stars in, is not a romantic comedy—it’s a workplace comedy, and the central relationship in it is a professional one between two women: Kaling’s newbie writer, Molly, and Emma Thompson’s veteran late-night TV host, Katherine Newbury. Its aims are both admirable and ambitious: It wants to do nothing less than litigate our culture’s fraught discussion of sexism and diversity in the workplace.
With goals as high-minded as that, then, it’s odd—and telling—that Late Night still does try to shoehorn in several romantic subplots. Or at least it attempts to: Each one of them is strangely joyless and half-baked. Kaling has said that she based some of the movie on her time as a young writer, including the experience of falling in love with a co-worker, but that doesn’t totally explain the presence of these tedious storylines in a movie that has little to do with them. It’s confusing and not a little disappointing for longtime fans: This is Mindy Kaling we’re talking about, a performer who built her whole public persona around her obsession with romantic comedies; if we’re going to go there, it should at least be done well. But it’s also disappointing on a larger level: Can’t there be a comedy about two women that gets to be about those two women, full stop, with no romance sloppily added in? What is it doing here?
Here’s how the love subplots actually go down: Toward the beginning of Late Night, Molly gets hired to write for Tonight With Katherine Newbury, where most of her colleagues—they’re all white men, and she’s a woman of color who has never worked in comedy before—seem intent on leaving her out of their reindeer games. One writer, though, Hugh Dancy’s Charlie, takes pity on Molly and invites her to see his stand-up set. Maybe we should have known then that he was bad news—isn’t it kind of a red flag to ask a potential new friend to watch you perform? In any case, he’s sweet to her, and right after she announces that nothing is going to happen between them, they end up making out on the street. Molly then declares that she’s not going to sleep with Charlie, and this time she keeps her word. Charlie predicts she’ll wait three weeks, insinuating that she’s only holding out to look demure. Throughout, it’s suggested that Charlie is a rake but that Molly is interested anyway—he claims to be a nice guy, but she says, “I know you’re not.”
Later, their boss, Katherine, hosts a party at her house, and this time Molly agrees to leave with Charlie, who jokes that she’s right on schedule, because it’s been three weeks. (It’s not actually clear if they do go home together; whatever else happens, happens off screen.) After this comes Charlie’s inevitable heel turn, wherein he’s revealed as a cad. It’s not much of a turn: We already knew that he was a Lothario type, and really not all that much else about him. Did Molly even like him much? What did it mean for her character’s story that they got involved? What did she learn? The plot was so thinly sketched and obvious at the same time that, rather than surprise or disappointment, my reaction was more along the lines of “What was the point of that?” We never get invested enough in Charlie to have a strong reaction to the “reveals” that supposedly expose his true character.
And that’s not Molly’s only regrettable subplot: One of her main antagonists on the writing staff from the time she arrives is a pompous senior writer named Tom, played by Reid Scott. After observing Molly’s hard work as well as her run-in with Charlie, Tom has a change of heart and decides to give her a chance. They become … friends.
Tom and Molly’s relationship does, at first, seem refreshingly platonic, free of meaningful glances or hints that these two are destined for each other. They’re colleagues who respect each other and work well together—but, perhaps unsurprisingly, that isn’t enough for Late Night. At the very end, the movie flashes forward a year, and we see that now the show is going swimmingly, Tom and Molly are equals at work, and oh yeah, they’re a couple too. It’s an “oh please!” moment, communicated with a small gesture: Standing together on a soundstage watching Katherine perform, Tom kisses Molly’s shoulder. The movie doesn’t linger here, so one could argue that it’s not very important, but that also shows how easy it would have been to leave out. The kiss cheapens and diminishes Late Night’s message by implying that getting a boyfriend is the successful woman’s ultimate reward. Why did Kaling believe, or allow herself to be convinced that, in addition to the ill-conceived Charlie plot, Molly needed to end up with someone? Why does that someone have to be another co-worker?
(Elsewhere, Katherine Newbury’s husband, John Lithgow’s Walter, has a supporting role in the movie, and even their love story plays oddly, if a little more naturally than Molly’s.)
I initially wished the love stories in the movie were better, but I’ve come around to wishing they just weren’t there at all. I was as excited as the next person to see Kaling realize her rom-com dreams on the big screen, but Late Night would have been far stronger without these lamely executed digressions. Leaving them out could have served as a statement that women’s careers and mentorship are powerful-enough subjects on their own to carry a major movie. The lead doesn’t have to be paired off before the credits roll. Instead, these subplots seem like a concession, and an undercooked one, guided by focus groups rather than storytelling. Women are rarely permitted to have truly platonic work relationships on screen; it happens basically never. And that’s a little insulting to people who live those relationships every day.
Every rom-com lover knows that when it comes to love, you can’t force it. Kaling did in Late Night, and I hope the flawed results are enough to convince her to strike a better balance next time, or even to make a story about women that doesn’t have a romantic crutch at all. And for that matter, I hope it also convinces her to go after that straight-up rom-com she definitely has in her—I’ll be first in line to see it when she does.