As a title, Long Shot is appropriately multi-functional. This unlikely-romance-meets-political-fairytale sells itself on the surface pun of a Seth Rogen-Charlize Theron romantic pairing, though frankly, the whole “stoner runt hooks up with woman spectacularly out of his league” is a running theme in nearly every R-rated comedy within the now decade-and-a-half of the Apatow era. Sneakier here is what amounts to the B-plot, the ceaselessly uphill battle of a woman attempting to run for president in a culture designed to maintain the patriarchy. But perhaps the longest shot of all is the film’s own aspirations: can one of these Rogen-minted comedies fuse pointed political commentary with its general bawdiness? The answer – “no” – is self-evident as the film plays. More interesting is exploring how and why.
It’s not as though Rogen’s output as a producer (and especially as writer-director, which he isn’t here) has been devoid of challenging issues or thematic potency; to the contrary, he’s had a hand in delivering some of the savvier studio comedies of the last decade. Lest we forget, this is the guy who made The Interview, about the hypothetical assassination of Kim Jong-un, which triggered a massive data breach for its studio. It’s not as though he’s shy about poking the powers-that-be. That consistent history makes it all the more curious that Long Shot has the opportunity to deliver a direct hit on the American political divide, but seems content to hurl softballs from the rafters.
The film’s basic plot teases incisive satire but rests content with broad parody: intrepid rabble-rousing journalist Fred Flarsky (Rogen) attends a political fundraiser intent on confronting a shameless media baron (played by Andy Serkis, in a role so heavily make-upped it may as well have been motion capture) but instead reconnects with his first crush, Charlotte Field (Theron), currently the Secretary of State under a buffoon president who assumed office on the pedigree of his celebrated TV career. The tentative romance that results from said reconnection becomes a political bombshell for Charlotte, who is trying to maintain an already-tenuous political image as a woman in power, serving a public that barely takes her seriously as it is, let alone if she starts dating a shaggy journalist.
I suppose, in our current political environment, we might be beyond parody, but the framework of this plot is totally on-the-nose, yet so focused on shifting just enough minor details that it results in a complete logical jumble. Serkis is obviously playing Rupert Murdoch, except he’s American and not Australian, and he isn’t subsidizing one particular party over the other, which makes his fascistic megalomania directionless and unclear. Theron’s Charlotte is in the exploratory phase of a presidential run based largely on an ambitious environmental agenda, which makes it impossible to believe she would serve under the current president, played by Bob Odenkirk as if it was a zany Mr. Showcaricature. The character is obviously a Trump inspiration but not a direct Trump parody – and again, seemingly free of a specific ideology.
At first glance, it seems like Long Shot is confused about the political stakes it’s attempting to portray, though in actuality, this is a film that’s so keenly aware of our fraught political landscape that it would rather not jump into the mess. But the purposeful injection of overt political references without a clear context doesn’t equate to being “above the fray,” it equates to being toothless. It’s unclear whether punches were pulled at the production level or script level, but what’s very clear is that the script feels at war with itself. Screenwriting credit is shared between Liz Hannah, who was largely responsible for the feminist verve of Steven Spielberg’s The Post; and Dan Sterling, a veteran comedy writer. It’s not a stretch to assume the precision with which the film dissects the uphill battle for woman leaders is Hannah’s work. I cannot attest to what the writing dynamic was or whose draft was delivered first, but there is an inherent clash between that clarity of gender politics and the scattershot jokiness with which the screenplay handles the broader political scope.
There’s a Capra-esque earnestness to the film’s use of romance as a pathway to one’s honor amid the cynical establishment, and it works — Theron and Rogen work splendidly together, and their effortless chemistry keeps the film afloat even while most other elements are flailing. One centerpiece scene, in which the couple dances together in the back room of a high-stakes political soiree, is absolutely perfect in terms of tone and theme. It’s a slow groove in the midst of a stuffy gathering, a more concise thematic distillation than any of the film’s lumbering character spoofs. If Long Shot were content to be the raunchy-but-sweet version of that classical mold, it could’ve made its point while naturally skirting current events. As it stands, however, it takes the form of a satire but keeps everything just broad enough to court the ticket-buying attendance of all possible targets.