One has to hand it to Jonathan Levine’s new movie: it manages to kill two birds with one stone, at once an insipid romantic comedy and an even worse political satire. But then, it’s difficult to imagine a Seth Rogen vehicle that could be anything other than a “Long Shot” at turning out well.
Rogen plays, in his usual loud, rather obnoxious fashion, a hell-bent investigative journalist named Fred Flarsky. He’s introduced escaping from a white supremacist meeting he’d infiltrated, only to have his piece on the group killed by the sale of his paper to Rupert Murdoch-like media mogul Parker Wembley (Andy Serkis, encased in dreadful old-age makeup). Quitting his job, he calls on his buddy Lance (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.) for some solace, and Lance takes him to a posh party where not only will Boys II Men perform, but Secretary of State Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron) will be one of the guests.
Fred and Charlotte, it turns out, recognize one another. Back in the day she was his babysitter, and at thirteen he had a terrible crush on her. In search of somebody to punch up her humorless speeches in preparation for a presidential run—her doofus boss (Bob Odenkirk), who once played a president on TV, wants to return to the world of entertainment and pledges to support her as his successor, and a consultant (Lisa Kudrow) has told her she needs image enhancement—she considers Flarsky for the job. Her advisors (June Diane Raphael and Ravi Patel) are horrified, but Charlotte hires him anyway.
Of course, it doesn’t take long for the two to show signs of romantic attraction—an even more horrifying prospect, since it’s generally thought that the perfect partner for her would be the handsome but dim Canadian prime minister (Alexander Skarsgard). But while there might be all sorts of reasons why Fred and Charlotte shouldn’t get together, even after disagreements over policy (she leans toward compromise, while he’s a firebrand, on her signature environmental issues) and a web scandal Fred creates that threatens the viability of her candidacy, the relationship cannot be stopped. Can you say: Inevitable, though highly implausible, happy ending?
As a romantic comedy, “Long Shot” might be thought of as a sort of Tracy-Hepburn movie brought down to the lowest twenty-first century level. Since it’s a Seth Rogen picture, it necessarily has a full quota of raunchy stuff, not least in terms of that unfortunate internet video. And it has straight-up slapsticky content, like a sequence in which Fred is dressed by Charlotte’s staff in a ridiculous outfit for an international soiree. The result is a decidedly low-brow affair.
The addition of drug humor—pretty much inevitable in a Rogen movie—adds another layer of crassness to the recipe. There’s a long episode in which Field, induced by Fred to get high, is forced to engage in high-stakes diplomacy when she’s actually high. It’s meant to be hilarious, or course, but isn’t; nor is the scene where the duo have their first big romantic moment after they’re forced to flee a terrorist assault by taking refuge in a plush beachfront resort.
The political satire, moreover, is incredibly shallow. The business of the president being an erstwhile TV star is awfully obvious, but even it could have been handled sharply—imagine, for instance, how much more clever it would have been for the role to have been filled by Martin Sheen rather than the buffoonish Odenkirk—but the portrayal of Wembley as a scummy, lecherous old codger and the Canadian prime minister as a vain, lovesick fool is no less so.
Nobody in the cast comes out of the movie particularly well. Rogen is Rogen, no more and no less, so you know what you’re getting with him. Theron handles her shallowly written character as well as she did that of a butt-kissing secret agent in “Atomic Blonde“—that is to say, it’s mostly an embarrassment for her. Serkis, Odenkirk and Skarsgard suffer the same sort of professional humiliation; the rest come off without much damage. The technical team—production designer Kalina Ivanov, cinematographer Yves Belanger, and the others—do their jobs competently enough, but Levine’s direction is rather lackadaisical, and editors Melissa Bretherton and Eva Henke allow the thin premise to drag on for more than two hours, a full thirty minutes more than necessary.
On second thought, perhaps “Long Shot” (which was originally called “Flarsky”) should have been retitled “Lost Cause.”