“Long Shot,” starring Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron, traffics in the very political stereotypes that it appears to be satirizing.
The new romantic comedy “Long Shot” has a familiar premise—the relationship between Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron), the Secretary of State, who is making a Presidential bid, and Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen), a scruffy investigative journalist whom she hires as her speechwriter. Actually, though, it’s a zombie film. There isn’t an undead character in it, but the movie itself is brought back from the cinematic graveyard, dry with the dust of long-interred ideas, moods, and tones. It’s decked out in up-to-date attitudes, pop-culture references, and political pieties and deceptions. But it’s an attempted and failed resuscitation—or, rather, a lifeless simulation—of the old-fashioned romantic comedy, and its narrative nostalgia is inseparable from its forward-seeming, backward-looking political fantasies.
Charlotte works for the vapid President Chambers (Bob Odenkirk), who rose to fame playing a President on TV. When he decides not to run for reëlection so that he can pursue his notion of true success, a movie career, the field is open to Charlotte. A relentlessly hard worker with a deep knowledge of policy, she plans to run on an ambitious environmental initiative, but her likability numbers are lower than her aides—led by her chief of staff, Maggie Millikin (June Diane Raphael)—would like. Meanwhile, the paper that Fred writes for, the Brooklyn Advocate, has been bought by a right-wing mogul, Parker Wembley (Andy Serkis), and, before the intrepidly independent Fred can be fired or muzzled, he quits. Fred’s best friend, Lance (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), a tech executive, takes him to a fancy party, where he finds himself face to face with Charlotte—who, as it turns out, used to be his babysitter, when he was thirteen, and has been his lifelong crush. Needing a speechwriter with a more popular tone, she reads his clips and hires him.
The predictable romance grows, fuelled by Charlotte’s long-stifled desire to have some fun and Fred’s ability to provide it, by Charlotte’s suppressed engagement with pop culture and Fred’s nerdy pop enthusiasm, by Charlotte’s loneliness and Fred’s sympathetic companionship, and by her hope for love and his steadfast adoration. Though political compromises put a slight crimp in the relationship, the true threat is a blackmail plot involving Wembley’s anti-environmental policies and an embarrassing video of Fred. It’s embarrassing but not incriminating—he’s been spied on while masturbating. Charlotte ends up taking a boldly pro-masturbation line and self-love conquers all.
Which is to say that “Long Shot” is yet another film in the venerable, antiquated genre of the hard-working, intellectually commanding, extremely capable woman who is emotionally stifled and needs an effusively warm-hearted man-boy to loosen her up and unleash her true and better self while improving her public image. Fred is both a regular guy and a liberal non-bro, the sort you’re both supposed to want to have a beer with and not supposed to be embarrassed to have a beer with; Charlotte is the kind of woman whose political career depends on having such a guy by her side. In this way and others, the movie traffics in the very political stereotypes that it appears to be satirizing.
“Long Shot,” directed by Jonathan Levine, offers facile feel-good winks to liberal attitudes, such as Fred’s effort to infiltrate a group of neo-Nazis (without ever suggesting that they might be big fans of President Chambers). He’s deeply sympathetic to Charlotte’s environmental agenda, and he displays a willingness to put his own work on hold to support Charlotte’s career. At the same time, the movie cautiously averts and deflects any notion of a politically polarized country—as if in fear of cutting off half of its potential audience. One of the articles by Fred that Charlotte reads before hiring him is a denunciation of the two-party system, a Hollywood sop to Naderist/Steinist (or white-knight centrist) fantasies. The movie mocks the apparently right-wing politics of the media mogul, who says that gay marriage causes hurricanes, but in the end it is his corrupt self-interest, rather than any ideological conflict, that brings the action to a crisis. That’s because there’s no ideological conflict anywhere to be seen in “Long Shot.” Charlotte is the Secretary of State in an Administration of no demonstrable politics; despite Chambers’s rise to power through vapid celebrity, it’s never clear what party he belongs to. Charlotte’s allegiances are no clearer. Her pro-environmental policies suggest that she might be a Democrat, as does Fred’s willingness to work for her; so, perhaps, does her choice of Lil Yachty, a Bernie Sanders supporter in 2016, to perform at her rally (and, for that matter, so does Lil Yachty’s willingness to perform there), but nothing else in the film suggests any political stakes in her candidacy.
There’s a disingenuous sidebar about Fred’s friend Lance, who, late in the action, comes out to Fred as both a Republican and a devout Christian. The revelations shock Fred—and the movie goes so far as to blame Fred for his own supposed intolerance of such views, which have in effect kept Lance in the right-wing closet. To the tiny extent that it trades in party politics, “Long Shot” presents red or blue adherence as more or less equivalent to attachment to a sports team. It suggests that Lance’s Christian faith makes for a natural connection to the political right, without mentioning any of the other issues related to immediate human needs—the social safety net, the redistribution of wealth, the defense of civil rights, the redress of inequality—that he and Fred might differ on. This silence is a tacit embrace of Hollywood’s long-standing presumption of libertarian meritocracy, of overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles through personal effort—not least because the narrative arc of struggle and triumph is an easy one with which to stoke emotions. (That’s why a truly progressive cinema takes a critical approach to dramatic conventions as well as political ones.)
“Long Shot” offers none of the substantive discussions that a journalist and a politician in a close working and personal relationship would have, because the movie displays a fear of politics—or, rather, a fear of controversy. This self-undercutting timidity affects the quality of the comedy. There’s a handful of clever comedic contrivances in the movie’s interstices, as when Maggie outfits Fred for a banquet in Stockholm, or when Charlotte, in Paris, has to defuse an international crisis while high. But the occasional flourishes of physical comedy are both awkward and frictionless, thuddingly violent yet inconsequential. Because of the insipid vagueness of the characters, Rogen and Theron work mightily to convey a convincing bond between Charlotte and Fred—a few of their encounters feature appealingly low-key and riffy banter. For the most part, though, the movie’s lack of political substance empties out the relationship at its center; having little to work with and little to hold them together, the actors appear to be meeting each other for the first time in every scene.