O'Shea Jackson, Jr.
June Diane Raphael
2 Hrs., 5 Mins.
Long Shot May 17, 2019
hat would it be like to fall in love with Seth Rogen? Such a question has been asked, throughout the 37-year-old actor’s two-decade-long career, a number of times. He’s been the unlikely object of affection of Katherine Heigl (in 2007’s Knocked Up), Elizabeth Banks (in 2008’s Zack and Miri Make a Porno), Collette Wolfe (in 2009’s Observe and Report), Kristen Wiig (as a hot-dog bun in
2016’s Sausage Party), and others. Usually, there’s an element of surprise — a suggestion that this is a dream come to life, for Rogen to attain the love of a blonde more outwardly appealing than him. It’s a trope that, while often being backed by movies that are at least fun, has also grown tiresome.
The premise is conceived of still having a few breaths of life in it. The cinematic mechanical ventilator is a movie called Long Shot; Rogen, again, becomes the unlikely object of affection of a blonde more outwardly appealing than him. In this case, it’s Charlize Theron. Whether you’re convinced by their relationship, and the movie itself, is contingent on how much you buy the narrative, which, while of course partially defined by its air of romantic implausibility, also aims to be something of a political satire. On the former front, the film is for the most part successful. (Though, by the last act, all its steam has disappeared into the ozone.) But on the latter, it’s a failure. Think TV’s Veep (2012-present) baring its teeth only to reveal a mouthful of gums.
In the movie, Rogen plays Fred Flarsky, a bearded, sloppily dressed investigative journalist who works at a respected alt-newspaper in New York City. His work is renowned, respected for its depth, wit, blunt edges. But a good reputation cannot save him from journalistic insecurity. As the film opens, his paper has been bought out by Parker Wembley (Andy Serkis), a hag-faced conservative media mogul with a bad case of Steve Bannon hair.
Fred promptly quits, unwilling to tone down his writing style and ethics to appease Wembley. His best friend, a bubbly tech entrepreneur named Lance (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), takes him out for drinks immediately after he breaks the news, hoping that alcohol, and his own exuberance, can cheer Fred up. The friends eventually wind up at luxe charity-fundraising event downtown; Lance landed on it for the sole purpose of seeing musical guest Boyz II Men.
The decision proves fortuitous. Also at the gathering is Charlotte Field (Theron), the U.S. Secretary of State, who, living up to the “small world” adage, used to babysit Fred when she was a teen. (Fred had a major crush on her, which leads to him sharing an embarrassing slapstick anecdote.) At one point during the event, they lock eyes. Charlotte invites him over; they get to talking. What Fred doesn’t know is that his former babysitter is eyeing a presidential run, and is in need of a speechwriter to help her appear more approachable. Later, when she learns of his unemployment, she offers him a position on her team after reading and delighting in several of his articles.
You can see where this is going. A lot of the emerging antics rooted in Fred and Charlotte’s professional (then personal) team-up are charming, helped, mostly, by Rogen and Theron’s sparky chemistry and a series of inspired comic set pieces. (The best in the movie involves Theron having to handle a hostage crisis over the phone just after taking the drug Molly with Rogen; it reminded me, at certain times, of the now-famous plane sequence from 2011’s Bridesmaids, in which Kristen Wiig gets high on a plane and hilarity ensues.) But once the inevitable moment where Charlotte and Fred have to consider how their romance might impact her presidential candidacy — mostly because Wembley, ever-scheming, has threatened to leak an accidentally taken video of Fred masturbating — the movie astronomically curdles, its political edges folding inward and the main romance losing its wit.
Long Shot is set in a cutthroat political arena, and takes much of the hot air out of it. But it isn’t, when you really ruminate on what it says, a satire of one. Such a billing is better reserved for the work of Armando Iannucci, who tends to get the solipsism and pettiness of the political climate just right. All Long Shot really does, in contrast, is offer a handful of parodic characters and plot points. There are mock versions of Justin Trudeau (here played by Alexander Skarsgård as a potential “other” love interest for Charlotte), Fox News-like personalities, and Donald Trump. (Here, the president is played by Bob Odenkirk as a man who is far less crass and orange than our current leader but is just as concerned with television; he’s a former TV actor looking to make the transition into movies once his term is over.) The various aspects of Charlotte’s persona are prodded at by her team in a way that echoes the media coverage of Hillary Clinton or even Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
That the movie offers entertaining, funhouse reflections of a number of current public figures might make it appear forward-looking. But once the last act begins, it announces itself jarringly old-fashioned. Late in the movie, shortly after Charlotte and Fred break up, Lance, attempting to help his friend see his ex-girlfriend’s point of view, decides that the best way to make this happen is to come out as a Republican and a Christian and see what the reveal evokes. The scene is aggravating and myopic; the gist is that it’s a bummer to live in a world where people “can’t see both sides.” Whatever happened to politics just being politics at the end of the day?, the Lance character fundamentally wonders. It’s a baffling, conservative scene that at once feels incongruous and also like a double agent being revealed in an espionage feature. At that moment, the actors feel like mouthpieces, evincing that maybe the film was never exactly interested in being a go-for-broke political burlesque anyway.
The ending is, I guess, happy. But it also feels hurried and unnatural — like a hastily written feel-good conclusion that even the people involved didn’t quite believe in. Days after watching the movie, I've increasingly found myself wishing it had been a bittersweet finale instead — something akin to the conclusions of movies like Lost in Translation (2003), Roman Holiday (1953), or even Harold & Maude (1971), where the axiom of “these people can’t be together” subversively makes us savor the relationship more. Long Shot is at its best when Charlotte and Fred are simply enjoying each other, sneaking around and getting a feel for one another, uncertain of if things can last. The tacked-on ending and dumbed-down political reveals undercut what makes the film delectable in other places; it also makes the film, which is, until its final act, consistently laugh-out-loud funny and sharply performed, further proof that finding out what it’s like to fall in love with Seth Rogen isn’t the must-see moviegoing experience it used to be. C+