Against all odds, Jonathan Levine manages to transform a stoner comedy with Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron into a charmingly sweet political romance.
On paper, Long Shot feels like the kind of exhausting stoner comedy we suffered through in the mid-aughts. Seth Rogen as a giggly slacker who finds himself in an improbable scenario where he gets to romance the impossibly-beautiful, incredibly powerful Charlize Theron while she runs for president? It wouldn’t be surprising to find that in one of the fake trailers for Funny People. As improbable (and, for some, exhausting) as that premise sounds, Long Shot manages to pull it off with plenty of laughs and no small amount of heart.
Let’s explicate the aforementioned premise, shall we? As competent, justifiably ambitious Secretary of State Charlotte Field (Theron) learns that her moronic former-TV-star president (Bob Odenkirk, channeling Trump without the abject cruelty and, presumably, the R next to his name) is foregoing reelection to try to make it into the movies. “It’s a tough transition, sir,” Charlotte admits, before maneuvering herself to receive his endorsement to run for president as his successor.
Enter Fred Flarsky (Rogen), a tell-it-like-it-is journalist recently fired from his paper after it’s bought out by Fox News analog Wembley Media, and its sleazy Rupert Murdoch-like CEO Parker Wembley (Andy Serkis, squinting through unrecognizable prosthetics). Despite his quintessential Rogen-ness – he spends most of the movie decked out in baggy cargo shorts and a windbreaker that looks like Lisa Frank vomited all over a Uniqlo – his wit and political convictions, as well as the fact that they’re long-lost childhood friends, attracts Charlotte to him. Hours later, he’s whisked off to join her as a speechwriter on an international tour to convince other nations to sign off on an environmental initiative that will springboard her presidential campaign. Meanwhile, the two rekindle their childhood flirtation – a move that will either end in happiness or completely torpedo Charlotte’s political aspirations.
Honestly, the fact that Long Shot comes to us courtesy of Jonathan Levine (50/50) should have been the first clue that it’s got more going on under the surface than Rogen giggling and romancing a woman way out of his league. There’s an emotional intelligence, a sensitivity to Levine’s approach to his comedies; he knows best how to use Rogen’s natural instincts for comedy while bringing out that pathos that makes Rogen so fascinating in the right hands.
Sure, Rogen’s a riff-heavy joke factory, but there’s a puppy-dog innocence to Fred’s political convictions that lends him some interesting political bite amongst his fish-out-of-water antics. When he’s not taking the piss out of political consultants Maggie (June Diane Raphael, blissfully getting way more chances to show off her delectably acid tongue than usual) and Tom (Ravi Patel), he’s taking Charlotte to task for chopping off bits of her initiative to appease the demands of other countries. What she sees as political pragmatism, he sees as sacrificing her principles – “this is the kind of shit you said you wouldn’t do when I signed up!” Fred yells at her after chopping off another bit of the bill because India won’t go for it. In amongst the expertly-timed gags and surprisingly sweet romance, Levine and the screenwriters manage to infuse Long Shot with solid digs at the tragic complications of political life.
Politics is a game of appearances and navigating mass appeal, of course, and it’s doubly hard for a woman, no matter how beautiful, how solid her policy positions; early focus groups score Charlotte in the 90th percentile, but “if you were a man, you’d be in the ‘190s,” Lisa Kudrow’s press manager admits. The key to ensuring her electability? To bring her ‘humor’ factor up a few points, to make her seem more relatable to the American public. After all, a woman can’t just be smart and capable – she has to be one of the guys, as well. On top of that, she has to be fodder for romantic gossip, whether with Fred or the gormless Justin Trudeau-like James Steward (Alexander Skarsgård), with his toothy grin and inoffensive good looks.
Much the same can be said of Theron, an actress who can seemingly do no wrong, offering crackerjack chemistry with Rogen while standing out in her own standalone comic scenes. Rogen’s the funnyman of the equation, but even his wisecracks can’t hold a candle to a late-film scene where Charlotte has to suddenly negotiate the return of a captured American soldier while rolling Molly hard. Whether she’s kicking ass in full-on action pictures, winning Oscars in prestige dramas, or cracking wise with the best of them in comedies like this, Theron is a movie star of indefatigable range. Hell, I’d vote for her.
All of this only scratches the surface of Long Shot‘s unconventional charms and doesn’t even mention the beautiful, scene-stealing presence of O’Shea Jackson Jr. (an actor I’ve loved since Ingrid Goes West) as Fred’s laidback, successful best friend. But that’s the appeal of something as warm, easygoing, and unexpectedly political as Long Shot: if you want to see it for the Seth Rogen jokes, have at it. But fully engage with it, and you’ll find a lovely romantic comedy about two people struggling to make a relationship work when the fate of the free world (and public opinion) is at stake.