'Long Shot': Film Review | SXSW 2019

Suspend your disbelief and you may well be charmed.
5/3/2019

Charlize Theron plays a presidential hopeful who falls for Seth Rogen's speechwriter in Jonathan Levine's far-fetched comedy.

Long Shot hardly begins to describe the premise of Jonathan Levine's latest comedy, in which an unemployed journalist who looks exactly like Seth Rogen woos one of the most powerful women in the world, who looks like just about the most glamorous version of Charlize Theron you've ever seen. Like its female protagonist, whose relationship with pop culture and fun ended when she set out to change the world in high school, the picture is in some ways stuck in the '90s — a time when moviegoers went for insane White House romances like Dave, or that other one where the president seduced an employee and was still championed by feminists. Very funny whatever you think of its more old-fashioned notions, the picture will charm many viewers who can set implausibility aside for a while; it's certainly the most commercial film yet by The Wackness director Levine.

Rogen's Fred Flarsky is a fearless muckraker whose career in investigative journalism hits a snag when a media baron (Andy Serkis' Parker Wembley) buys his newspaper. Jobless and sad, he phones up childhood buddy Lance (O'Shea Jackson Jr.) for an epic drown-your-sorrows evening that ends, thanks to Lance's big-shot connections, at a very swanky Manhattan party, the kind of affair where media barons and politicians mingle. Soon, he's causing a scene by telling Wembley how awful his Fox News-ish media empire is for America. And he's catching the eye of Secretary of State Charlotte Field (Theron), who's convinced she knows this horribly dressed loudmouth from someplace.

Turns out she does. She used to babysit him.

Field is about to run for president, and has been told she'd be the perfect candidate if only she were funnier. To the dismay of her aides (June Diane Raphael and Ravi Patel), she hires quick-witted Fred to write for her; having known (and secretly loved) her at the dawn of her idealism, he has insights that can make her speeches sing. He travels with her on a whirlwind tour as she builds support for an ambitious environmental agenda; they trade ideas in the globe's most romantic capital cities. Knowing her from a more vulnerable time, Fred helps Charlotte shake off some of her perfectionist tendencies. Eventually, she finds herself drawn to him.

The point at which one says "This is ridiculous," and what one does about that observation, will vary from person to person: Is it when Fred wreaks havoc at a diplomatic dinner and isn't fired on the spot? When the couple's first kiss is interrupted by a firefight, which forces them to take shelter in a beachfront paradise? Or when Secretary Field engages in life-or-death diplomacy while in the throes of MDMA? Those of us who've witnessed love between penniless schlubs and Type A goddesses at close range may accept the pairing of Theron and Rogen, who make a sweet if not magnetic couple onscreen. But some of this is tough to take.

That being said, screenwriters Dan Sterling and Liz Hannah (along with, presumably, some uncredited puncher-uppers) pack this thing full of laughs. No audience will ever be as generous as a festival premiere where a large percentage of the crowd has a financial interest in the film, but at this screening, the response to many zingers threatened to drown out important dialogue that followed. Supporting roles are broadly drawn but successful — from the trio of vapid boors doing an excellent Fox & Friends impersonation (Kurt Braunohler, Claudia O'Doherty and Paul Scheer); to the president (Bob Odenkirk), who should begin each speech with "I'm not a real president, but I've played one on TV"; to the Canadian prime minister (Alexander Skarsgard), whose dreamy looks mask a total lack of charm.

Yves Belanger's glossy photography and Mary Vogt's wardrobe give the film a sheen to match its high-stakes romance. The pic conceives of the challenges facing Secretary Field (and her responses) in ways unlikely to earn Long Shot a place on the Top 10 lists of Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris. But for viewers happy to see the sensibilities of the Apatow era paired with the vintage high-concept, low-plausibility rom-com, this bet pays off.

Production companies: Point Grey, Denver & Delilah
Distributor: Lionsgate
Cast: Seth Rogen, Charlize Theron, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Andy Serkis, June Diane Raphael, Ravi Patel, Bob Odenkirk, Alexander Skarsgard, Kurt Braunohler, Claudia O'Doherty, Paul Scheer
Director: Jonathan Levine
Screenwriters: Dan Sterling, Liz Hannah
Producers: Charlize Theron, AJ Dix, Beth Kono, Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen, James Weaver
Executive producers: Jonathan Levine, Nathan Kahane, Kelly Konop, Barbara A. Hall
Director of photography: Yves Belanger
Production designer: Kalina Ivanov
Costume designer: Mary Vogt
Editors: Melissa Bretherton, Evan Henke
Composers: Marco Beltrami, Miles Hankins
Casting directors: Francine Maisler, Kathy Driscoll-Mohler
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Headliners)

123 minutes