I laughed. I cried. I ate popcorn. That’s how we’re supposed to review movies right? I don’t know. I’ve never done one of these things so bear with me as I muddle through. Amazon Studios gifted MPLS MadWomen some tickets to an early screening of Mindy Kaling’s latest project, Late Night (sponsored post?) but I promise I will be fair and honest in my review as an unbiased *ahem* journalist.
So, it’s true. I did laugh and cry throughout the film. Some of this is due to some stressful meetings before the show that left me essentially one big raw nerve. Some of this is because the themes hit home in a big way. The laughing part, well that’s just because Kaling is a creative genius.
The premise, if you haven’t seen the trailers, centers around Kaling’s character Molly who gets a job writing for a late night show led by Emma Thompson’s character Katherine Newberry. Molly is a sunny, wide-eyed hopeful who lucks into the position after winning an essay contest put on by the chemical plant that employs her. So, yeah, not a great plausibility start, but the need to position her as feeling undeserving of the job called for it. I guess. In my opinion (and experience) the fact that she is a woman is probably enough to trigger plenty of imposter syndrome, so they probably could have skipped the leap from QA to contest winner to late night writer.
Despite the flimsy foundation, much of the movie rang true. Molly dives into her new-found career with reckless abandon and no regard for her personal life, everything you’d expect from a plucky-girl-makes-it-big movie.
One thing I did appreciate is a scene wherein Molly uses her QA skills to find problems with the show. Without bringing solutions — which anyone who has been in the workforce for more than a few days knows is a big no-no. She flies into a spiral of self pity, not dissimilar to the spiral I had emerged from just in time to make it to the theater. Of course, it’s her grizzled coworker who shakes her out of it. Explaining that she came here to write, so write, dammit. And write she did.
Her relationship with Katherine was much of what you would expect. Katherine hates being challenged, but knows she needs Molly. Molly proves herself. Screws up. Katherine screws up. Makes good. Which isn’t to say Kaling doesn’t find ways to make this storyline funny and entertaining, it just follows a tried and true formula.
One more not absolutely glowing thing about the film and then I’ll get on to all the things I LOVED. Molly’s love storyline felt unnecessary and perfunctory. Just because she is a single young woman with little social life, doesn’t mean she has to mine the workplace for men. Especially given the fact that from my understanding, writer’s rooms are filled with slovenly unwashed neanderthals. But, I get it, it’s a film for ladies so there has to be a love interest in there somewhere? Plus, I mean, I’m not going to pretend I’d be above writing me making out with Hugh Dancy into a storyline if given the opportunity.
Okay. Now onto the things I loved.
It was really Katherine who emerges as the most interesting character of the film. Her relationship with her husband, Walter — played beautifully by John Lithgow, dynamic with her boss — Amy Ryan — and her own internal struggle with perfection didn’t get the bulk of the screen time, but they were powerful.
In terms of her marriage, there were struggles, naturally, but what I loved about their take on it was that the marriage didn’t flounder because she worked too much. It wasn’t assumed that she felt less whole because she didn’t have children. Or that her husband resented her success. He supported her, was brutally honest when she needed it and loved her without condition. When she made a potentially marriage-destroying mistake, he saw his own flaws in them. He focused on her humanity and how that meant taking the good with the heart-breakingly bad.
Even in talking to Molly, he acknowledges his wife’s flaws in an effort to get her what she ultimately needs, even if Katherine can’t see it. That’s love.
I think this journey of imperfection is why I’m so drawn to Katherine. I’m constantly trying to eradicate the flaws from my being. Even though I fully acknowledge I’m drawn to women who are messy and open about their weaknesses. Far more than women who present as ever-collected.
I think that’s what leads to the tension between Katherine and her boss as well. Both of these strong, powerful women are seemingly above reproach with their impeccable suits, unchipped nails and well-tamed hair. They seem to play this game of chicken, whoever shows their imperfection first, loses. When, ultimately, it’s this imperfection that saves the day and their relationship.
This same tension is also present between the generations in the film, which holds up when I compare it to my own life. We’ve discussed this before, but seeing it come to life on screen made me realize it’s larger than our little industry and our little city.
Generations of women had to fight to get where they are. Hide their flaws and march forth like they weren’t actually people. Now, we’re told “be who you are at all costs.” Katherine battles this constantly throughout the film. With her younger staff and her younger audience. She demands perfection of herself because that’s what it took to get to where she is today.
I think that’s why so often, the women we’re supposed to strive to be in movies, television and real life are untouchable. They have flaws, sure, but they are carefully curated and only become the exception that proves the perfection. It’s representative of the reality of the powerful women faced for decades, centuries, millennia.
Things are being reframed, for the better, but it can be a challenge for those who clung to their unfailing excellence to get to where they are, to let that excellence become something else. Katherine’s growth in this area was inspiring to watch. Which, in reality, was likely the intent sandwiched between the genuinely funny dialogue and audience-pleasing formulas of Kaling’s screenplay.
And for that I give it a MadWomen—five stars—we’re doing this now. Get used to it.
/written by Eliza Green