Hollywood is cyclical in nature. Every genre has a successful boom, a series of mediocre knock-offs, a death-knell, and an eventual rebirth. It happened to the Western, it happened to the musical, and now, it’s happened to the romantic comedy. A staple of the 90s before being effectively murdered by Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson, the rom-com has experienced a second coming in recent years as La La Land, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, The Big Sick, and Crazy Rich Asians have put the genre back on the map. Long Shot is the most recent spin on the genre, a political romantic comedy that combines The American President with The 40-Year-Old Virgin. And while it suffers from many of the irritating setbacks of most Seth Rogen/Judd Apatow films, it does have a fresh, chemistry laced angle on the classic story of boy-meets-girl.
Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron) is the youngest Secretary of State in U.S. history. Serving as the main voice of reason in the Cabinet of the mentally unstable President Chambers (Bob Odenkirk), Field is delighted to learn that Chambers will be stepping down after his first term, leaving the field wide open for her victory if she can just land an upcoming environmental deal with 100 nations. However, while Field is well liked for her elegance, intellect, grace, and physical appearance, her “Humor” score is down amongst focus groups. If Field wants to eliminate any doubt she can become the first female president, she’s going to need to hire a sharp, witty political writer who can punch up her speeches and make her more likable. Enter Fred Flarsky (Rogen, who also produced the film), an acclaimed journalist recently laid off when his paper was acquired by media mogul Parker Wembley (Andy Serkis). As fate would have it, Field and Flarsky were next-door neighbors growing up – she used to babysit him, and he had a massive crush on her. As a brilliant political mind who also happens to know her since before the weight of the world crushed her soul, Flarsky’s the perfect candidate to punch up those speeches. However, what neither of them expect is that maybe – just maybe – feelings may evolve along the way, and the two of them may find love in the broken, broken world that is Washington.
Around the twenty-minute mark of Long Shot, there is a sudden realization that creeps over you, something that you had an inkling of, but may not have fully comprehended: “Oh, so they’re really making a romantic comedy.” Now, this shouldn’t come as a full surprise – if you had any interest in seeing this movie, saw a trailer, or anticipated the plot in any way, I’m sure you were aware that the film would focus on the passionate fumblings of two lovable protagonists. However, what you cannot prepare for, and what will absolutely shock you, is how fully director Jonathan Levine and writers Liz Hannah and Dan Sterling throw themselves into the tropes of the material. It is so played as such a straightforward romantic comedy, with so little irony or outside material, that you can easily see this film existing twenty years ago (albeit with less current political references and a less respectful handling of its female lead, surely) with almost the exact same scenarios and starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan (actually, that’s not a terrible idea). There’s the meet-cute, the wacky best friends who give our sage protagonists advice, the rush to the airport – it’s all there, and all gloriously played straight. Built upon the strong backbone of Theron and Rogen’s undeniable chemistry, the film embraces its heritage in all its messy glory. Their relationship is not just built on the nebbish/hottie fallacies of, say, Knocked Up – it’s built on a shared past, a respect for the other’s intelligence, a desire to share passions and hobbies, and a desire to bring out the best in each other – Charlotte helps push Fred to be a better man and move outside his personal bubble, while Fred reminds Charlotte of the simple joys in life, like 2 Chainz, Game of Thrones, and Marvel movies. Like When Harry Met Sally… and Pretty Woman before, the inevitable consummation of the relationship strikes the perfect balance between adorably cute and fantastically funny. And it manages to find ways to add a new spin on classic dialogue – when Rogen’s Flarsky calls best friend Lance (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) and tells him “I’m starting to realize I may never have actually been happy. I think this is the first time I’ve been happy,” the line feels surprisingly deeper than one would expect from a raunchy romantic comedy. This is a cute, beautiful, good line that also captures that weird feeling that emerges when you enter a relationship for the first time in ages – that feeling when you remember what real happiness and love feels like, and you never want it to go away. The film also draws on past romantically political films to immerse itself in the material – the MacGuffin of the film surrounds an environmental deal that is used much in the same way and executed quite similarly to the gun control bill in The American President (another fantastic romantic comedy). It is utterly surprising to see this film so boldly declare itself a romantic comedy, and yet the fact it does so is truly refreshing.
Of course, that American President allusion turns out to be quite pertinent for a different reason: Long Shot’s way of talking about modern-day politics, in all its messy glory. The film’s grounding in modern-day politics is pretty clear from the opening scene, where Fred Flarsky is undercover in a white supremacist rally (using a hilariously ironic and incredibly dark 4chan handle that I can’t even write in a censored form on this site). The film wears its heart on its heart on its sleeve in terms of politics, and while it has no problem going for simple laughs, like the President nearly starting an international conflict over Instagram, or the entire premise of the Secretary of State doing molly to relax (I’ll talk more about this later, but Theron is very good at physical comedy), the film uses politics not only as a driving force for its narrative, but as an entire tool for world-building as well. Every movie relationship has an internal conflict that threatens to break its couple apart – Harry is a chauvinist while Sally is a perfectionist, Joe is an assh*le while Kathleen is naïve, Celine is flaky while Jesse is cocky, and so on. Here, the issues they face, both outside and inside their relationship, come from their ideologies. Fred is a passionate liberal who believes that compromise destroys progress, and is irritated by Charlotte’s inability to push policy further. Charlotte, meanwhile, understands how the game is played, and knows that she has to compromise if she wants to get things done. This is a real debate playing out in politics at the moment, on both the right and the left, and its interesting to see it explored in the context of a romantic relationship (where compromise and the need to maintain individuality are in a constant flux already). The humor expands outward to tackle some obvious jokes, but with interesting twists that keep them feeling fresh and enjoyable for the whole family. The film’s main villain, media mogul Parker Wembley, represents several of the worst aspects of modern day politics (the radicalization of news, the control these moguls hold over politicians, and so on). There is a great reference to Wembley’s running of false ads on Facebook that helped get Odenkirk’s Chambers elected – and when Flarsky’s boss (the great Randall Park) challenges that “they never proved that,” Flarsky hilariously points out that “We did! I wrote three articles about it!” Meanwhile, Wembley’s personal news studio, Wembley News, is a thinly-veiled reference to a current television channel, and yet every time they cut away to the three morning anchors (played brilliantly by Kurt Braunohler, Paul Scheer, and Claudia O’Doherty), you can’t help with laugh. One of my favorite throwaway jokes, in regards to Secretary Field, is Braunohler’s statement, “Are women mentally unfit to be president? To answer that, let’s go to our panelists Chris Brown, Jeremy Piven, and Brett Ratner.” Sometimes all it takes for a great political joke to work is great writing and a game actor (just ask Veep). And yet, lest you assume the film is just going to be another agenda piece (which, whether you’re on its side or not, would honestly just feel tiresome at this point after the weak-handed clapter we’ve experienced with lazy television impressions without commentary or nuance), it takes a smart turn to explore something deeper. Long Shot strives to work as something of a healing force for our country right now. Sure, our heroes are definitely on one side of the ideological debate, but the film portrays compromise (within reason) as honorable when it’s for the greater good. Meanwhile, while Flarsky’s purity of belief is also portrayed as honorable, the film takes several strides to point out that he’s also an insufferable douchebag for it. It’s pretty clear how the film feels about its male lead’s purism when he mentions in a rant about Wembley early on, “He’s going to turn this place into a propaganda machine! And not the good kind that’s right! The bad kind!” His efforts to push Charlotte too far almost sabotage her world efforts to end climate change, the very thing he claims to be passionate about. And near the end, when a beloved character reveals (in humorous but non-condescending manner) that he is a Republican, and the advice they’d been giving Fred all along was rooted in Republican ideology, Fred angrily (and humorously) rants that “You filled me with Republican sh*t, and it made me feel good! How dare you!” The screenplay wisely understands that political comedy has always been rooted in going after the people on the top and criticizing the things that are wrong with the system, but there’s no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater in doing so.
However, when it comes to the film’s views on modern day politics and existential questions, perhaps the most interesting notion explored by the film is the challenging balance of being a woman in politics. Field’s dilemma is centered very early on in the film’s runtime – when she determines that she will be running for President in 2020, a meeting with her polling team makes it clear just how many hurdles she will have to clear in order to have a chance at the nomination. From grace to beauty to elegance to intelligence, she has to be in the 95th percentile in almost every category to even have a chance at competing (as comedically noted, she has to compete at double the level of most white males attempting to run, something made abundantly clear by both sides of the aisle in both 2016 and 2020). The point is further established when Flarsky’s first draft of Field’s speech states openly and honestly, “Every fracking drill is the method with which we buttf*ck the Earth.” In explaining why the line is unusable (other than its vulgar nature), Charlotte explains, simply and succinctly, the reason they have to be careful with the speeches they write: “If I seem angry, I’m hysterical. If I raise my voice, I’m a b*tch.” It gets the point across just how perfect Field is required to be in order to not just do her job, but get her foot in the door in the first place. The levels to which Field has to go in order to become the first female president are explored on both a macro level – Charlotte is incredibly aware about how everything she does, from the way she waves to the way she will suffer if Fred falls apart, will effect the young girls looking up to her to lead the way – and a micro level – when discussing her lack of a relationship with Fred, Charlotte laments that, “Guys don’t want to date women who are more powerful than them.” The film also explores these notions in terms of a two-party system that has now devolved to trying to spite each other as a means of avoiding actual progress, benefitting rich benefactors, and destroying any hope of an up-and-comer (especially a woman) gaining a foothold in the old boys’ club that is American politics. When realizing that any lasting policy she would enact would immediately be revoked by an incompetent president and his slimy donors, and the American people would be apathetic to her struggles, Charlotte laments, “What’s the point? Every time I try to do something, it gets undone. I wish I could just not give a sh*t like the rest of the world.” Lines like this provide intriguing insight into the mind of not just the main character, but any rising political star that is passionate about changing the world, only to realize their dream is ignored by most and loathed by the rest. It’s the type of smart decision making that allows Long Shot the opportunity to branch out beyond twee rom-com tropes and raunchy dick jokes.
Now, all this is well and good, but what of the film’s quality? Is it technically a well-made film, or just a smart, lazy one? Well, the answer is “it’s a mixed bag.” Jonathan Levine is a terrific director, having proven himself on the truly wonderful 2011 film 50/50. And he keeps things moving along here, making sure that the film never devolves to extended bits like, say, a Judd Apatow comedy. He smartly keeps things moving economically and efficiently, and perhaps the best example of his deft hand is the soundtrack. The score subtly incorporates variations on “Hail To The Chief,” to great effect, while the soundtrack is a who’s who of great love songs, both diegetic and non-diegetic, from Frank Ocean’s cover of “Moon River” to Boyz II Men’s “It’s So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday” to The Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me.” Basically, Levine is aware of the unwritten rule “Every great romantic comedy has a killer soundtrack.” Unfortunately, Levine lets his own worst impulses (or perhaps Rogen’s) get the best of him. Several moments break the film’s reality in order to earn a cheap joke, including an opening bit where Rogen throws himself out a second-story window and walks away unharmed. The CGI is also noticeably cheap (shocking considering this is a $40 million film) on things that really didn’t have to be CGIed, like a romantic helicopter ride. And then there’s the raunchy humor, which brings me to the biggest mixed bag of the film: the script. Now, don’t get me wrong: I love a lot of the dialogue in this film. There are a litany of quotable lines, from the rom-com laced “I am not going to neg the Secretary of State!” to the just flat-out funny “It’s fun being in Argentina. I think the people who killed my grandparents are hiding out here” to almost any line out of June Diane Raphael’s mouth (more on her later). My problem, however, is the same one I’ve had with almost every Rogen comedy for fifteen years. Rogen is a student of the Apatow School of Comedy: where every bit of improv is automatically funny, there’s no such thing as “no,” and where adding “f*ck” to a sentence automatically makes it funny. Now, I am not a prude: there’s nothing wrong with bawdy jokes and cursing as a punchline. Shows like Veep, Billions, and Succession average more swearing per minute than a Southern karaoke bar has performances of “Take Me Home Country Road.” However, what these shows do well is they turn swearing into an art form, using “f*ck” as a flourish, not a punchline. Big studio comedies are still learning this, and it makes many of the film’s jokes feel lazy, as opposed to funny. We’re not in fourth grade, people. Ditto the use of bawdy, scat humor throughout the film, including a mostly unnecessary scat shot that will earn a chuckle on first viewing, but will lose its humor easily by the second. It is clear that Liz Hannah played a huge role in rewriting Sterling’s presumably lazy script, and it’s perhaps the film’s saving grace.
As for the acting, the terrific performances from the leads remain the film’s saving grace in the moments that feel beneath them. Rogen gives a very Rogen-esque performance, but it is rooted in such down-to-earth loveliness, filled with such heart and wit, that it makes Flarsky his most exciting role in years. Meanwhile, Charlize Theron continues to prove why she’s one of the best actresses alive. Theron nails every aspect of the character, from the grace to the loneliness to the emotional core that makes Charlotte Field tick. She plays the smartest person in the room well, especially in an early scene where she hilariously convinces the President that endorsing her is his idea. And, in the film’s most exciting twist, she’s actually great at physical comedy – the scene where she tries to enter the War Room while high off her ass is a laugh-out-loud moment. Meanwhile, in the film’s take on the “best friend” roles, I want to give a special shout-out to both O’Shea Jackson Jr. and June Diane Raphael as Lance and Maggie, respectively. Jackson Jr. has been really breaking out in the four years since Straight Outta Compton, and as Flarsky’s sarcastic, troublemaking (in a loving way) best friend, he is a real knockout, stealing the film whenever he’s onscreen. Meanwhile, Ms. Raphael gives what may be her crowning achievement as Charlotte’s campaign manager. Raphael’s character is skeptical of Flarsky, and as the second-smartest character in the room at all times (after Charlotte, natch), she uses her tongue to brutally – and hilariously – berate him every chance she gets. Each line out of Raphael’s mouth is pure poetry, read with the proper venom and humor of Olivier reading Shakespeare, or Dreyfus reading Iannucci. She alone may be worth the price of admission. Most other roles serve a purpose somewhere between “cameo” and “joke appearance,” including a funny cameo from Lisa Kudrow to Lil Yachty (as himself!) to Alexander Skarsgård’s hilariously dumb Justin Trudeau send-up (I love how hilariously dumpy he is). Bob Odenkirk mostly just shows up to play the version of Michael Scott he famously auditioned for back in 2004, and there’s not much to add about the performance – especially when compared to Andy Serkis. Serkis is doing…a lot in the film. Playing a strange cross between Rupert Murdoch, Roger Ailes, and Steve Bannon, Serkis underwent six hours of makeup to create an appearance unlike any way a human being has ever looked and – strangely enough – still a dead ringer for Steve Bannon. It’s unnecessary, humorous, distracting, unsettling, and deliberate all at the same time, and it’ll probably be a talking point (for better or worse) for most audience members upon leaving the movie, but if you ask me, I’ve gotta say I like the performance. Oh, and because I don’t want him to go without credit (as many reviews have), I want to give Tristan D. Lalla the proper credit for his performance as Secret Service agent M. Lalla is both funny and appropriate in the role, and he oftentimes steals attention away from the bigger-name stars. I appreciate his work on the film, and I want to give him the credit he deserves.
Long Shot is exactly what you’d hope for from a cute little romantic comedy. It’s charming, it’s sweet, and it’ll make you laugh. Like most of Seth Rogen’s recent “intelligent” comedies, like The Interview and Sausage Party, its humor is only surface-level smart, and you’ll most likely forget you saw it in two months time (I forgot The Interview existed until right before my screening, let alone that I saw it). But that’s the thing about art as a pop culture medium: true art may require a life span of more than a few weeks, but just-as-important entertainment just needs to please you in the moment. Long Shot may not completely blow you away, but you certainly won’t leave disappointed.