Jonathan Levine has made a modest career for himself directing mid-budget movies aimed at adults. In the ’80s, he’d have been lost amid a crowd of similar filmmakers, but in 2019’s theatrical landscape — where intellectual properties only exist to keep major studios afloat — his work feels endearingly old-fashioned… if not particularly great.
Genre-wise, Levine’s all over the map, following up the mature cancer dramedy 50/50 with the teen-zombie romance Warm Bodies. Now it’s the politically charged romantic comedy Long Shot, which is a blast when lingering on Charlize Theron and Seth Rogen’s surprising chemistry and less so when flaunting its half-hearted wokeness.
Political rom-coms aren’t uncharted territory yet Rogen’s involvement gives Long Shot the R-rated raunch that was decidedly absent from The American President. His character, the inexplicably named Fred Flarsky, is a reporter for a hip Brooklyn publication where he unleashes foul-mouthed cultural critiques on his progressive readership. The opening scene has him undercover at a neo-Nazi gathering about to receive an initiation swastika tattoo. Unfortunately, the gang does a quick Google search, finds out their new companion’s true identity and Flarsky makes a hasty exit to avoid some serious bodily harm.
Despite the comedic tone, this introduction is nevertheless meant to establish Flarsky as a journalist of genuine integrity, willing to risk his neck to expose society’s monsters. That’s all undermined by how obviously terrible he is at the actual job, getting discovered with zero effort and nearly dying as a result. Alas, it’s a contradiction Long Shot’s screenwriters didn’t seem to mind.
Once his employer is bought out by alt-right media mogul Parker Wembley (Andy Serkis, buried under prosthetics that recall Dan Aykroyd’s penis-nosed judge from Nothing But Trouble, an image I’d rather forget), Flarsky resigns out of respect for journalism, man. A drunken evening then leads him to a high-society fundraiser and an unexpected reunion with his childhood babysitter, Charlotte Field (Theron). Charlotte, who’s come up in the world quite a ways since high school, is now Secretary of State and has imminent plans for a presidential bid. The two hit it off so well she hires him as her speechwriter. Of course, a mismatched romance gradually develops.
Perhaps I buried the lede here, so allow me to make something clear: Charlize Theron is no question the highlight of Long Shot. What’s there to say? Theron is a god walking among the Earth, a constant reminder of how far the rest of us stray from the perfect image. That she’s also one of our most versatile and magnetic modern actors is merely incidental. She brings every scene to life with total ease; it’s remarkable Rogen can even act alongside the megaton force of her screen presence.
Anyways, she’s a pretty good actress. To the screenplay’s credit, the plot reverses the antiquated Pretty Woman premise where a powerful man falls for a woman who, god forbid, isn’t conventionally successful or wealthy. A cute subversion, I suppose, but Long Shot lives and dies on the dynamic between its two leads. As Flarsky, Rogen still has the low-key goofball essence that worked wonders in Knocked Up. His improvised banter remains witty as hell and he pulls it off without sacrificing his trademark relatability.
That banter between Theron and Rogen, as well as the scenes in which their feelings inevitably grow for one another, are where the movie coasts past its predictable plot on sheer charisma. There’s a warm familiarity watching two delightful actors carry a rom-com no matter how contrived; it’s what all the best entries in the genre do. Any time Long Shot tries to comment on The Times We Live In, however, it can turn grating.
It doesn’t take a genius to realize the Republican party currently presiding over America is a perverse freakshow, the horrifying result of a two-party system collapsing in on itself. But the thing is: Parading Alec Baldwin around in a wig and fake tan doesn’t cut it these days. Before her campaign, Theron’s character serves under a lunkheaded president played by Bob Odenkirk, a former television star who resigns in order to make his leap into film acting. A TV star as an incompetent president, you say? Interesting! Luckily, Odenkirk brings a borderline-surreal touch to his performance that makes the painfully obvious dialogue during his scenes worth enduring.
The other jabs at the GOP and political system don’t fare as well. Serkis’s media mogul is an uninspired stand-in for Steve Bannon, and his role doesn’t require him to act so much as stand there and look disgusting. Likewise, a recurring gag parodying FOX News (it’s biased, lol) could have been excised entirely save for its good sense to feature Paul Scheer as a newscaster. Yes, today’s politics are beyond absurd; that’s why comedy needs to do more than simply imitate the ridiculous people involved in them.
Long Shot is heartfelt enough to win over audiences and potentially pick up the scraps left in Avengers: Endgame’s box-office wake. I, for one, would be a liar if I said I was able to resist its sweet nature, and when most romantic comedies seem to forego sincerity in favor of ironic detachment, it would be nice to see Levine, Theron and Rogen’s earnestness met in kind.