At the height of their popularity, the Apatow gang (which, for the sake of brevity, we’ll say encompasses the casts of The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up) was criticized for a perceived “glorification” of immaturity. The films depicted either grown men living out adolescent fantasies or fathers who were more responsible but ultimately unhappy and beaten-down by their responsibilities. Since then, most of the actors who got their start in Apatow’s raunchy comedies have moved on from raunchy comedies — they’ve switched to drama (Steve Carrell, Jonah Hill), directing (Jay Baruchel, James Franco), huge superhero tentpoles (Paul Rudd) and what appears to be self-imposed exile of some kind (Jason Segel). The only guy that has truly ridden the wave is Seth Rogen, who also became the stable’s biggest and most visible star.
Rogen shepherds most, if not all, of his projects in some way. It goes without saying that they reflect his own personal sense of humour and morals in a way that it seems few A-list comedic performers have been able to manage for as long. Consequently, there are things that happen in every Seth Rogen vehicle whether he wrote it or not: there’s worship of a mainstream-turned-kitsch ’90s musical act, there’s a scene somewhere two thirds of the way through where the characters have a wild drug trip, there are multiple scenes of him chilling with one or many close male friends who are kind of different but also similar, and there is almost always some notion of Rogen’s character being a fuck-up, slacker or being too set in his ways to change.
A few years ago, however, things began to shift. As Rogen became more involved on the production side of things, his films became fewer and further apart. They began to deal with things like responsibility and the passage of time, even if they had dick jokes in them; they brought Rogen to the cusp of creating an international incident through a movie that was nearly nothing but dick jokes. To say that Rogen is gaining maturity as a comedic voice would be to assume that that’s the goal; considering that he recently prefaced a benefit for Alzheimer’s with an elaborate joke about smoking weed out of his dick hole, perhaps that’s not quite the intent.
All of this brings us to Long Shot, Rogen’s third collaboration with director Jonathan Levine and the closest thing to a straight-up rom-com that Rogen has essentially ever made. (We can, I think, discount his supporting role in You, Me and Dupree for these purposes.) Even though an elaborate cum gag (the most elaborate and plot-relevant cum gag, in fact, since There’s Something About Mary) takes a central spot in Long Shot, it remains a surprisingly sweet and kind of old-fashioned rom-com — the kind of movie you pretty much don’t see anymore, even if most of its awnings and finishings are tremendously 2019.
Fred Flarsky (Rogen) is an investigative reporter for a Brooklyn-based alternative paper who loses his job after a series of cuts makes him disposable. Bummed out, he accepts his best friend Lance’s (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) offer to see Boyz II Men play a swanky private party, where he runs into his old babysitter Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron) — who happens to have grown up to become the Secretary of State. Fred has always had a crush on Charlotte — who he hasn’t seen in years — and their reunion is a mostly amicable one that ends with Charlotte offering Fred a job as a speechwriter.
What they both know (but the world doesn’t) is that the sitting president (Bob Odenkirk), a former TV star who was elected on the popularity of a show in which he also played the president, is planning not to run for re-election, leaving it wide open for Charlotte to swoop in. Fred and Charlotte grow closer as Fred becomes one of the only people allowed to spend any amount of time with the extremely busy, extremely solicited Charlotte, and a tentative romance springs forth — but is it really good optics for the beautiful, smart and extremely competent Secretary of State to be seen canoodling with a scruffy, chubby out-of-work journalist who seems to only own two shirts?
Long Shot works better as a Cinderella story than it does a political satire, probably because it plays its inversion of tropes relatively straight. Ten or fifteen years ago, a movie like Long Shot would have spent an inordinate amount of time rolling around the emasculation shit heap and exploring just how embarrassing it is to be less important and powerful than your girlfriend. That idea of power imbalance is certainly at play within Long Shot, but functions more as the invincible villain of the piece. It’s not a ravishing Austrian prince that keeps our two lovebirds apart; it’s the sheer absurdity of the situation and its statistical improbability that stands between them.
As a satire, Long Shot borders on the toothless. It skewers both Donald Trump (though Odenkirk doesn’t actually do a Trump impression, it’s hard not to draw parallels between the real president and this fictional president who spends all his time watching footage of himself and seems to have no real idea what his job is) and Justin Trudeau (in the form of Alexander Skarsgård as the Canadian Prime Minister, a handsome mayonnaise man with absolutely nothing to say whom everyone thinks would be a better fit for Charlotte), but its political inclinations are more situational than anything resembling punditry.
What it says about the current political landscape (idealism is great but impractical and nearly impossible to implement; blind partisanship is tearing us apart; tabloid sensationalism has no place in politics) is fairly poky and obvious, though it does take a fairly organic approach towards its depictions of government. (It never turns, as I was expecting it to, into some kind of action-comedy featuring poorly explained international subterfuge.)
Frankly, all of this is the stuff we know we can expect from a Seth Rogen vehicle. The comedic setpieces are frequently hilarious and the director shows considerable skill at balancing the raunch throughout. Rogen is as winning as ever, although that’s once again to be expected. The real question mark in Long Shot is Charlotte Field — it’s a difficult character to pull off, because she has so many qualities and is so thoroughly impressive on the outside that a worse film would risk completely ignoring the real person on the inside. Long Shot plainly doesn’t work if the character of Charlotte doesn’t come across like a real person somewhere down the line — and, thankfully, there’s nearly nothing that Charlize Theron can’t do.
One of the big stumbling blocks that Long Shot faces is the fact that it’s based on a premise that few people can believe: that someone like Charlize Theron would ever go for someone like Seth Rogen. It has permeated most reactions to the film since its announcement, as if the film was just one long wish-fulfilment fantasy for the world’s most powerful chubby stoner. I have to say that I didn’t think about this once during the entirety of Long Shot, and that has everything to do with Theron. It would be easy for her to channel ice queens or steely badasses (both of which she has done before), but she really does find humanity in a character that could easily have been idealized or sanded down. It’s rare to find truly great performances in mainstream rom-coms because, more often than not, they’re tailored specifically to the stars’ personas. Long Shot is the exception — a pretty good comedy elevated by the rapport between its leads and the superlative work done by Theron. ■
Long Shot opens in theatres on Friday, May 3. Watch the trailer below.
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