Movie Review: Long Shot
By Matthew Huntley
May 23, 2019
“Long Shot” is what you might call a two-faced comedy. It’s not evil by any means, but it does feel slightly underhanded in the way it comes across as both timely and out-of-date; funny and not so funny; spontaneous and predictable; romantic and vulgar; fresh and trite. It would have been great if the movie had found a way for its stronger qualities to overpower its weaker ones, and there are times when we want to forgive it its flaws and simply go with the flow. I would have, too, if I didn’t think the filmmakers and cast were capable of something better. In the end, I had to hold them to a higher standard.
The plot is simple but promising. Charlotte Field (Charize Theron) is the hard-working, always-on-her-phone, current U.S. Secretary of State who also has her eyes on the presidency, so she’s delighted when incumbent President Chambers (Bob Odenkirk) calls her into his office and tells her he will not be seeking re-election because he wants to break into the movies. Such attention-seeking ambitions for a U.S. President don’t seem so farfetched nowadays, and Chambers has already played the president on TV. “Only two actors have ever made the jump from TV to film: George Clooney and Woody Harrelson,” he tells Field, and he desperately wants to be the third. That’s why he’s quickly willing to endorse her as his successor.
But before Field can announce her candidacy, she needs to first build a solid platform and reputation, as well as an agenda that has international support and recognition. She chooses to focus the environment, lifelong passion, and while at a swanky fundraising event, she happens to cross paths with Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen), an outspoken activist-journalist who’s recently quit his job after learning his company was bought by conservative media tycoon Park Wembley (a heavily made up Andy Serkis). Flarsky prides himself on his liberalism and reporting the truth (the opening scene finds him trying to scoop up dirt on a white nationalist group), and for Charlotte, Fred’s writing has the kind of chutzpah and humor that could really spice up her speeches to promote her environmental initiative.
I should point out that Charlotte and Fred actually know each other from back when. She was his babysitter in high school while he had an embarrassingly pathetic yet sweet crush on her. Fred explains to his best friend Lance (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) he once got an erection right in front of Charlotte as she was practicing a high school debate speech, to which she said, sympathetically, “Oh, that’s okay.” He’s never lived the moment down, but that doesn’t stop Charlotte from hiring Fred to join her on her upcoming international tour as a speech writer and editor.
Of course, this being a romantic comedy and all, it’s just a matter of time before an actual romance blossoms between the stately Charlotte and rough-around-the-edges Fred, and the “long shot” title actually refers to two things: 1) whether or not the United States is finally willing to accept a female president; and 2) whether two people with similar political views but entirely different lifestyles and senses of refinement can make it and sell themselves as a couple, especially when one of them is in such a high position of power. The movie sets out to explore and make statements on both scenarios, and on the latter, Charlotte’s uptight staffers Maggie (June Diane Raphael) and Tom (Ravi Patel) tell her dating Fred is essentially political suicide and that her being involved with the obnoxious Prime Minister of Canada (Alexander Skarsgård) would be much more publicly accepted.
To the credit of writers Dan Sterling and Liz Hannah, working from a story by Sterling, “Long Shot” did have me wondering how all of its plot threads were going to pan out. There are credible arguments from various characters and circumstances from the plot that don’t make the answers certain, and the film’s ambiguity kept me engaged and involved.
Also to the filmmaker and cast’s credit is their getting us to accept Charlotte and Frank could actually be a couple and like each other. At first, it would seem that a character played by Theron at her most chic and elegant would never be attracted to the loud, unruly, cargo-pants/wind-breaker/baseball-cap-wearing Frank, a role that Rogen fits into all too well. It would be much more reasonable to think Theron’s misanthropic character from “Young Adult,” who was rude, slovenly and immature, would be the one to gravitate toward Frank’s advances.
But Theron’s Charlotte, for all her magnetism, poise, intelligence and political prowess, is also lonely, and Frank reignites her passion for those things she cares about most. We buy that she probably sees her former self in him and that his spirit recalls her wanting to change the rules of the political game instead of merely play by them. Both Theron and Rogen convince us their initially kinky and mostly sexual relationship could really develop in this context, and their natural, unaffected performances allow us to think a woman in such a high career rank could realistically fall for guy who happens to be living paycheck to paycheck.
However, what I could believe and what’s actually funny are two different things. Even though the plot of “Long Shot” is sound enough, its means for generating humor often feel desperate, while its targets are, sadly, already jokes in and of themselves. With its obvious liberal attitude, it’s like the movie is trying to get by on embarrassing people and things that already accomplish this on their own, and the result is a comedy that lacks punch and luster.
Don’t get wrong: I’m all for lampooning white nationalism; conservative, misogynistic media conglomerates like Fox News; and the idea that the President of the United States cares more about looking good on camera and securing his own personal investments than protecting the American people. The problem is the way the movie depicts such concepts doesn’t seem all that exaggerated or far from the truth, at least from a liberal point of view. It’s what we see and experience on a daily basis, so the movie’s jabs and antics are too familiar and its methods too heavy-handed. The filmmakers must have known their primary audience would be liberals, and because the gags merely reinforce what we already believe, they come across as hollow and patronizing.
Social and political parodies aside, the movie’s romantic and sexual humor also feels outdated and childish. Much of it seems taken from a comedy that might have come out around 2007, when Seth Rogen was just making a name for himself with “Knocked Up,” “Superbad” and “Pineapple Express.” These movies were and continue to be funny, but they are also a product of their time. In 2019, Rogen still has appeal, but it’s of a different variety, and so now, watching him jump out windows, fall down stairs, yell with his boisterous voice, dress like he’s a single gamer living in his mother’s basement, and masturbating on-camera just doesn’t have the same impact it once had. At this point, we’d like to think Rogen has graduated beyond this style of humor, especially since even he doesn’t even seem all that into or comfortable with it. Watching him perform, we get the sense he’d rather be doing comedy that’s less slapstick and prurient and more intelligent and grown-up.
Oddly enough, as topical as its screenplay is and as enduring as its romantic comedy elements are, “Long Shot” has arrived on the scene too late. I probably would have liked and responded to it more if it had come out 10 years ago, when its political humor would have been more prophetic and its sexual humor more uncharted. Now it just feels too ordinary and by-the-numbers. The movie made me chuckle here and there, and I found the characters sympathetic and believable, but on the whole, it needed a more original agenda and sharper jokes to make me think it was worth my time. The good news is the filmmakers and actors prove they’ve got what it takes to make a better film; now they just have to go and make it.