Seth Rogen’s rambunctious brand of self-deprecation tends to dictate the tone of the many raunchy studio comedies he’s appeared in over the last decade, but “Long Shot” finally provides a co-star who can match that dopey charm. In director Jonathan Levine’s frisky romantic comedy, Charlize Theron’s workaholic Secretary of State exudes power and intimidation with her every move, putting Rogen’s overbearing journalist-turned-speechwriter in his place even as they fall in love; in the process, she injects this formulaic movie with fresh bite.
A romcom fantasy that funnels aspects of “Notting Hill” and “Dave” through a raunchy filter, “Long Shot” turns its endearing couple into a savvy vessel for exploring America’s fractured times. As Rogen’s shaggy humor finds its match in Theron’s domineering energy, “Long Shot” is overlong and rough around the edges, but its imperfections speak to an endearing knack for the messiness of modern times.
The true symbiotic relationship of “Long Shot” involves its screenplay, which stems from an original story by “The Interview” scribe Dan Sterling and has been punched up by co-writer Liz Hannah, a veteran of scripting political intrigue with “The Post.” This time, that experience provides the framework for a more boisterous crowdpleaser, but not without its fair share of cogent observations. The dilemmas facing workaholic policy wonk Charlotte Field (Theron) as she careens through a man’s world in her quest to take on the White House — hiring, and then falling for, the sophomoric joker she used to babysit as a teen — take a number of ludicrous turns, but the sexist pressure she faces provides the movie with an authentic core.
The movie takes its time establishing the unlikely duo before bringing them together. Iconoclastic journalist Fred Flarsky (Rogen) displays his commitment to feats of muckraking journalism in the very first scene, when an attempt to infiltrate a neo-Nazi hate group yields mixed results. This scenario might carry an entirely different Rogen vehicle on its own (think “BlacKkklansman” by way of “All the President’s Men”), but Fred’s penchant for daring exposés hits a wall when his liberal Brooklyn rag gets sold to bigoted mogul Parker Wembley (a shriveled Andy Serkis under a cartoonish mop of white hair doing his best Rupert Murdoch). Rather than restraining his uncompromising style, Fred walks, unwilling to sacrifice his ideals for a paycheck.
In the meantime, Charlotte learns from the country’s oblivious actor-turned-president (a smarmy Bob Odenkirk) that he plans to resign from the White House to pursue an acting career in movies. In the process, he tells Charlotte he wants to endorse her in the next election. But Charlotte’s diplomatic credentials run counter to her likability ratings, and it doesn’t take much for her to figure out that she faces a familiar array of sexist expectations if she chooses to enter the race.
Assailed by a marketing firm for everything from her solitary nature to her awkward wave, she’s faced with the challenge blunt terms: “We don’t drill down on policies, and that’s because most people don’t seem to care.” The movie’s funniest recurring punchline involves a spot-on sendup of “Fox and Friends,” which sees one repellent host (played with lecherous fervor by Paul Scheer) finding new ways to make disparaging remarks about Charlotte’s appearance. The most upsetting aspect of this gag is how little it has to upend reality for the joke to land.
These disparate strands collide when Fred follows his affluent friend Lance (an overconfident O’Shea Jackson, furthering the comedic potential he displayed in “Ingrid Goes West”) to an upscale Manhattan fundraiser. As Boyz II Men entertain the room, Fred and Charlotte suddenly lock eyes. Recalling a clumsy moment of affection from their youth, Fred assumes Charlotte has forgotten him; instead, she finds him a welcome alternative to the buttoned-up crowd. And after he makes an ill-timed attempt to reprimand the capitalist scum in attendance, falling on his face in viral-ready fashion, Charlotte’s amusement turns into fascination as she reads through Fred’s gonzo journalism and decides his entertaining tone could provide her with the image shakeup she needs. Called into her office for a covert meeting, he reluctantly agrees to become her speechwriter, in part because he sees potential to affect real change but also because he clearly has nothing better to do.
As Charlotte launches a global tour to push her climate agenda, hoping to set the stage for her presidential campaign when the incumbent announces his plans, Fred quickly becomes the thorn in the side of her high-stakes plan. Clad in an outrageous neon windbreaker and peering around with a wide-eyed fish-out-of-water stare, Fred strikes Charlotte’s stone-faced chief of staff (June Diane Raphael) as anathema to her agenda as she barks orders at the latest hire. “You’re a punch-up writer, not Maya Angelou,” she shouts, when he attempts to preserve the minutiae of a policy speech. Despite his unruly attitude, however, Charlotte embraces Fred’s willingness to think outside the box, and he realizes that his real job is to humanize his boss. In due time, as the group embarks on a global montage that stretches from Sweden to Hanoi and beyond, Fred interrogates Charlotte on every aspect of her life to ensure her speeches go beyond merely regurgitating policy. In the process, of course, the pair also develop a romantic spark.
When “Long Shot” transitions from political satire to romantic comedy, as Fred and Charlotte foster a clandestine affair, the movie’s sprawling plot struggles to reconcile its disparate tones — and, over the course of nearly two hours, comes across as dueling movies. But Rogen and Theron work overtime to make for a convincing odd couple, while Levine (who last directed Rogen in the wacky stoner odyssey “The Night Before”) excels at framing their evolving romance in sweet, disarming terms. Sneaking into a backroom during an upscale party in Argentina, as they slow-dance to “It Must Have Been Love,” there’s no doubting the genuine bond between these characters that transcends the expectations thrust on top of them.
But “Long Shot” works best when it ratchets up the lunacy, with a standout sequence revolving around the pair’s decision to take mali while in Paris — where Charlotte is suddenly forced to solve an unexpected diplomatic crisis. The image of a loaded, sunglasses-clad Theron lighting up a cigarette and whispering into the phone as her peers in a makeshift war room look on epitomizes this loopy movie’s fundamental appeal.
Of course, for all its truth-telling about the dismaying simplification of powerful women in the political arena, this long-gestating project doesn’t exactly match the harsh realities of the current political landscape. Odenkirk’s clueless actor-president seems like a benevolent dictator compared to the reality show lunatic currently in the White House, while Charlotte’s uphill battle to impress the American public in her quest to become the first female president feels like old news in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s tragic quest to do the same thing.
“Long Shot” has decent ideas about the inane optics involved in fostering a convincing political image, but even the more inspired moments of “Long Shot” carry the burden of material that has been done in sharper terms before, most notably with the arrogant schemers on “Veep.” But unlike that show or other more pointed satire, “Long Shot” embraces an old-school formula in which love conquers all (even the vile forces of corporate lobbying in Washington). In these divided times, that concept registers as little more than a warm-hearted fantasy, but that’s the appeal of this genre since its inception — and these days, it might be just the escapism that America needs.
“Long Shot” premiered at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival. Lionsgate releases it May 3, 2019.