Cast: Seth Rogen, Charlize Theron, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Andy Serkis, June Diane Raphael, Bob Odenkirk, Alexander Skarsgård
Director: Jonathan Levine
Writers: Dan Sterling, Liz Hannah
The story of the low-status man who falls in love with the high-status woman and attempts to overcome the obstacles keeping them apart is at least as old as The Great Gatsby, but in that particular case the underdog hero has always been played by the dashing, desirable likes of Robert Redford and Leonardo DiCaprio. One could probably imagine that if Jay Gatsby happened to be a tubby, scruffy slob, then the beautiful, highborn Daisy would never have looked at him twice and the story would never have happened. That’s how Long Shot would appear to see it anyway as it presents us with the unlikely romance of the unkempt Seth Rogen and the glamorous Charlize Theron. He plays an overweight, unhygienic and unemployed journalist who gets dismissed by most as a loser with nothing of worth to offer the world while she plays an elegant, intelligent and successful politician whom the people revere. The whole film is built around the idea that a classy and stunning woman like Theron’s Madam Secretary falling for a schmuck like Rogen is so far beyond the realm of possibility as to be worthy of being both dramatized and made fun of. The truth of the matter is a subject of some debate considering how consistently Rogen has been playing appealing romantic leads since Knocked Up, but in any case Long Shot makes for a somewhat flawed and outdated if still charming and watchable film.
The movie follows Fred Flarsky (Rogen), a committedly left-leaning investigative reporter who quits his job in protest upon learning that his newspaper has been bought and absorbed into a corporate media empire run by the Rupert-Murdoch-ish Parker Wembley (Andy Serkis). Later the down on his luck Flarsky has a chance encounter with Secretary of State Charlotte Field (Theron), his former babysitter and first crush who even as a 16-year-old Sophomore was determined in her idealism and ambition. Having recently learnt that the inept President Chambers (Bob Odenkirk) has no intention of seeking re-election, she has begun laying the groundwork for her own presidential bid. Her polling data however indicates that much of the public views her as rather unapproachable and lacking in warmth and humour. After reading some of Fred’s articles and realising not only what a good writer he is but how deeply he cares about the same issues as she does, Charlotte brings him on board her campaign to punch up her speeches. As they work together for several nights on end and bond over shared values, adolescent memories and inside jokes, their friendship blossoms into a romance that gets put to the test by external prejudice, political pressure and sabotage.
The plot of Long Shot is pretty weak and worn and it goes about it for too long with a two-hour runtime where ninety minutes would have sufficed. What kept me going through it all was the wonderful chemistry between Rogen and Theron, who are thoroughly enjoyable in all of their interactions together. Playing the personas they’ve spent their whole careers cultivating, he as the awkward but lovable stoner nerd and she as the alluring and capable but still compassionately vulnerable lady, both fit naturally into their assigned roles and the comic energy between them endears you all the more to their coupledom. It helps that the film establishes the link between them as being founded on common interests and values and mutual respect for their talents and ambitions. Fred and Charlotte are quite simply two people who like each other in spite of their differences and the movie wastes absolutely no time on pitting them against each other and having them bicker in that Sam & Diane way in order to generate some cheap ‘will they, won’t they’ tension that rom-coms love so much. It’s obvious that these two are going to get together since that’s the premise of the whole movie and the tension arises from whether they’ll be able to make it work despite all the forces that threaten to keep them apart. Their relationship is all the more interesting and delightful for having not indulged in such needless pretence.
The spark that they share does wonders to enhance the comedy side of things, as does the work of much of the supporting cast, particularly June Diane Raphael as Charlotte’s snide and stuck-up campaign manager. As is to be expected whenever Rogen is on board, the movie partakes in gross-out humour and stoner comedy, including a scene where Charlotte is called upon to deal with an international crisis while high on molly and another in which a video of Fred masturbating is unearthed and employed in a blackmail scheme. The film however is at its best and funniest when Rogen and Theron are allowed to play off each other in verbal banter, which is why I wish the film could’ve been a little more Howard Hawks and a little less Judd Apatow. Such an approach however would probably have necessitated a deeper dive into the ideological differences between Charlotte and Fred and a more incisive commentary on the movie’s politics. The film opts to go silly and safe with its brand of humour instead, dropping inoffensively profane one-liners where it can and joking about pop culture and orgasms while paying only mild lip service to a brand of liberalism and gender politics through which they try to score points for progressivism without being so controversial so as to alienate certain audiences. That was where the film lost me the most.
To its credit the movie does make some timely observations about the position of women in today’s political sphere and the unique challenges they face. It rightly observes, for example, how ambivalent men still are about powerful and ambitious women, what regressively narrow parameters the public is willing to accept for their profiles, and how much higher they have to jump to hit the same targets as men. Charlotte, despite being hyper competent at her job, impeccably qualified, and boasting a bulletproof public record, still has to work harder to be accepted as a satisfactory presidential candidate than Chambers, whose one and only qualification was that he played a fictional president on a popular TV show. However, the film never provides any deeper insights into these issues because it’s ultimately only willing to go so far in reflecting the political realities of the world today. Instead the film glosses over how ugly and complicated the political minefield of moral compromise, partisan opposition, and sexist double standards can be, opting for an uncontroversial, centrist ideal with its false equivalencies and simplistic solutions. I could perhaps be a little more charitable and look at the movie as more of a Sorkin-esque political fantasy (the similarities with The American President are unmistakable), one where the strong independent woman gets to have her cake and eat it too. I think that’s a little disingenuous though considering how at the end of the day it’s the woman who has to learn the lesson and change her ways rather than the man.
With little of political substance to fuel the character dynamics and comedy, the quality of the film comes down mainly to the talents of its cast and the execution of certain gags that are often funny in the moment even if they don’t have any lasting consequence. One highlight is when Rogen is outfitted for a fancy banquet in Stockholm. He and Theron work wonders when they share the screen and I can only imagine what they might have accomplished with a smarter and more daring script. The two work so well together that the movie’s total fixation on its central gimmick, that being the comical unlikelihood of their relationship, soon loses its novelty. The way they keep returning to the idea that the gross, fat man and the beautiful, elegant woman have no business being together grows all the more monotonous the clearer it becomes what much more interesting and funnier things they could be doing and talking about if only the movie would let them. You become so convinced of the couple’s suitability that you start to wish the film would engage with them less as comedic archetypes and more as people. It is during the more human moments that Long Shot well and truly shines and that humanity, as determined by the main characters’ core political ideals and struggles in the face of adversity, is what the movie is sorely lacking.