In essence, what endears romantic comedies to their most ardent supporters also is what bothers a lot of critics. Rom-coms, on the whole, are formulaic fantasies about everyday people who behave unrealistically in exceptional (and exceptionally well-lit) situations. The films usually adhere to a simplistic three-act structure that hinges on the viewer’s emotional catharsis. The lovebirds meet and get to know each other in a montage scored to an upbeat pop song; clash, separate, and miss each other in a montage scored to a melancholy pop song; and ultimately reunite, with a coda scored to a cathartic pop song.
In Long Shot, the upbeat song is Blondie’s “One Way or Another,” the melancholy song is Roxette’s “It Must Have Been Love” from the Pretty Woman soundtrack, and the cathartic song is Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own,” which is odd, given that the couple ends up together. By the way, given the genre, that’s not a spoiler.
Pedestrian song choices aside, Long Shot is hit-and-miss. What works about it also is what works in all the good rom-coms: fundamentally, it’s a story about two likable people putting in the time and effort to understand each other. As critic Wesley Morris wrote in a recent New York Times Magazine article about the dearth of modern rom-coms and why that’s unfortunate: “Romantic comedy is the only genre committed to letting relatively ordinary people—no capes, no spaceships, no infinite sequels—figure out how to deal meaningfully with another human being.” It’s a fair point, and one that explains why Long Shot warrants a fair shake.
The more ordinary half of this movie’s duo is a Brooklyn-based reporter named Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen, playing the raunchy/cuddly version of himself that he honed in Knocked Up and perfected in This Is the End). The object of Fred’s affection is Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron), who was Fred’s babysitter when she was 16 and he was 13. Now, Charlotte is the U.S. secretary of state—celebrated, of course, for being the youngest and hottest person to hold the office—and she plans to run for president in 2020.
Like Harry and Sally, Edward and Vivian, Joe and Kathleen, and other exalted rom-com pairs, Fred and Charlotte represent a case of supposed opposites attracting. Fred, who writes for a local rag that evokes a mash-up of Vice and the Village Voice, is brash, unkempt, judgmental, and uncompromising. Charlotte, in her ambitious quest to actually save the world while climbing a slippery political ladder, is tactful, chic, open-minded, and persuadable. These two are idealistic humanitarians at heart; they bonded in adolescence over how deeply they cared about issues that most Americans ignored, like recycling and global warming. When they bump into each other as adults at a Manhattan charity event, one can almost see their kindred sparks. Obviously, it is unlikely that a guy who looks and acts like Rogen’s character would enchant Theron’s—and even more unlikely that she would hire him to punch up her speeches after watching him pillory a media mogul and then nosedive down a staircase. But common sense matters little in the pursuit of feel-good, against-all-odds, shoot-for-the-stars romance.
Director Jonathan Levine, who previously teamed with Rogen on 50/50 and The Night Before, works some glimmers of political satire and ribaldry into Long Shot‘s cavalcade of tropes. Many of the jokes are weak, eliciting light chuckles if anything; but the few knee-slappers that emerge from the film’s most outrageous situations will likely be the moments for which Long Shot is best remembered, like when Charlotte negotiates the release of a hostage while high on MDMA.
Long Shot‘s strongest asset, though—which, upon reflection, also exposes the movie’s greatest flaw—is Theron. For years she has excelled at dark comedy, evidenced by her prickly turns in the Jason Reitman-Diablo Cody films Young Adult and Tully, not to mention her off-kilter guest spot on Arrested Development. She’s funny here, but only when the script gives her some edge to chew on, which doesn’t happen enough.
Many critics have already categorized Long Shot as more like Veep meets Notting Hill than The American President. I, however, longed for Charlotte to be as acerbic, outré, and uproarious as Veep‘s Selina Meyer. I also bristled at Long Shot‘s conclusion: that the woman has to change for her man while he basically stays the same. (I guess he learned how to be less judgmental, or at least that’s what the screenwriters want me to think.) In one of several explanation-laden scenes, Fred’s best friend (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) tells him that he judges people too much in the name of white-knight liberalism. Meanwhile, Charlotte jeopardizes what she has wanted and worked for her entire life in the name of integrity, but also to publicly endorse and hold on to her man. It’s a huge sacrifice that Fred does not reciprocate; but they’re cute together, so the outcome is less offensive than it is disappointing.
Still, the movie ticks its post-Trump, post-MeToo feminist boxes in other ways, like showing how Charlotte and her advisers’ concern with optics is justified. As a woman in politics, Charlotte knows full well that the general public will view her anger as hysterics, her assertiveness as bitchiness, and any misstep as more damning than one made by a man. Cowriters Dan Sterling (The Interview) and Liz Hannah (The Post) handle this material and the romantic side of Charlotte and Fred’s relationship best, though neither element is as daring or clever as it could have been.
But here’s the thing: rom-coms, probably more than films of any other genre, are supposed to be vehicles for escapism. Rom-com fans rely on them for this, too, especially when the current climate—both the political and literal—is inflamed. Ergo, Long Shot accomplishes what any decent romantic comedy sets out to do: induce some laughs, awwws, and sighs of relief at a tidy, happy ending. v