To the extent old-fashioned print advertisements sell us anything in the age of social media and viral video, Long Shot’s theatrical release poster is curiously misleading. In it, stars Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron stare at their outstretched hands, their smiles wide and baked, underneath the text “Feel Something Different.”
You don’t need to have swallowed a Molly yourself to realize a promo for a drug movie while you see one. And while such a sequence does exist in Long Shot — leading to the best scene in the film, in fact — it’s hardly representative of the picture as whole. This is a political rom-com, set largely in the White House and various diplomatic and geopolitical confabs.
Theron plays Charlotte Field, the young and glamorous secretary of state, an overworked policy wonk who can’t catch a break from a vulturine media eager to pounce on her every inelegant hand wave, “emotional” cadence or wayward strand of hair. Rogen is Fred Flarsky, renegade investigative journalist — think Matt Taibbi with a lumberjack beard—who, as a teenager, was babysat by Charlotte.
Their paths cross again at an environmental fundraiser in Washington. They catch up, share memories. Within days, she takes a second look at Fred’s trenchant, colorful copy and hires him as a speechwriter to “punch up” her popularity numbers — she will soon be running for president, after all—thus kick-starting a beauty-and-the-beast courtship that’s about the clashing of ideals as much as appearance and status: Can her pragmatic politics jibe with his activist purity?
Director Jonathan Levine previously worked with Rogen on The Night Before, one of the more inspired and loopiest comedies of the past decade. They never eclipse that film’s most uproarious set pieces, but there’s a great deal of winning humor in Long Shot. When Charlotte slips away from a stressful global tour to ingest psychedelics with Fred, and is then forced to negotiate an inopportune Middle East hostage crisis, Theron is at the peak of her physical-comedy acumen. The film also gets in some well-timed pokes at Brett Ratner and Jimmy Fallon.
But to fawn over this admittedly likeable product, as many critics have done, is to move the goalposts of the artful, layered, sophisticated American comedy. Levine is a hackneyed formalist relying on familiar visual tropes and sound cues. The sweetened score is bland and generic, the aural equivalent of a store-brand syrup. The romantic-comedy structure is transparently routine, complete with 360-degree money shot around kissing faces; and when the romantic leads skid toward their rote impasse at the end of the second act, Charlotte feeds her sorrow with a pint of Häagen-Dazs, like she’s in a Katherine Heigl movie from the mid-Aughts.
Moreover, unlike, say, last year’s savage and underrated The Oath, Long Shot misses opportunities to critique the zeitgeist of American politics. Granted, there are tepid overtures to extemporaneous events: In the movie’s prologue, Fred infiltrates a white-nationalist meeting in an effort to expose the neo-Nazis; and the movie’s president, played by Bob Odenkirk, is a former TV star with no governing experience or core values, and whose decisions are shaped by the person to whom he last spoke. Those looking for it will find a subtle dig at Fox & Friends, in the form of a running gag involving vacuous, couch-sitting news anchors with antediluvian opinions.
But these are exceptions to the ruling atmosphere, and because the satire is delivered with kid gloves, it barely registers. This is a peacetime movie, a politics-as-usual romantic comedy, whose narrative is stoked in the fires of electoral normalcy, and where the president is just a nonthreatening buffoon.
Long Shot wants to be a relic of the 1990s, when the bleeding-heart messaging of The American President could win over viewers of all persuasions. But this movie’s screenwriters, Dan Sterling and Liz Hannah, lack Aaron Sorkin’s insider bona fides and barbed authenticity. This feels like an outsider’s fantasy of Washington’s contretemps and horse trading, where the secretary of state’s job involves jet-setting from one gilded diplomatic function to the next.
We never even learn of Charlotte’s political party, lest this movie sacrifice its populist inclusivity in a time when there’s no more divisive word in the English language than politics. Even the movie’s poster would rather simply turn on, tune in and drop out.
LONG SHOT. Director: Jonathan Levine; Cast: Seth Rogen, Charlize Theron, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Andy Serkis, June Diane Raphael, Bob Odenkirk, Alexander Skarsgard; Distributor: Lionsgate; Opens: Friday at most area theaters