The “opposites attract” romantic comedy is a venerable institution. You could go back to Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew,” though with its misogynist elements you may want to look at a more modern version, like My Fair Lady or – even better – Ten Things I Hate About You. The differences between the two main characters gives the writer a fertile field in which to grow and harvest laughs. It’s also a form that lends itself to the hard-R rated comedy, such as the Amy Schumer/Bill Hader film Trainwreck or the Seth Rogen/Katherine Hagel flick Knocked Up. Rogen could be the poster-boy for hard-R comedies, with films like Pineapple Express, This Is the End, and The Interview, though he can also plumb emotions as he did in 50/50.
It’s hard to think of a greater opposite for Rogen than Charlize Theron. She started her film career with a series of eye-candy roles, though in films like 2 Days in The Valley, The Devil’s Advocate, and The Cider House Rules, her performances had a depth and nuance one wouldn’t expect. She broke out with her stunning, Oscar-winning performance in Monster, and has recently reinvented herself as an action hero in Mad Max: Fury Road, Atomic Blonde, and The Fate of the Furious. Putting them together in a movie seem like pairing Dom Perignon with pizza, but in Long Shot, it works.
Fred Flarsky (Rogen) is an investigative reporter for a small New York City paper. When the paper is bought out by conservative media mogul Parker Wembley (Andy Serkis), Fred quits. His best friend Lance (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) takes him out for a special day to heal his wounds, which includes a party where Boys II Men are performing. But there he meets Charlotte Field (Theron), the hyper-competent and confident woman who’s serving as Secretary of State. Fred had grown up next door to Charlotte and had even been babysat by her, which led to a terminally embarrassing moment for him as an early teen.
Charlotte has her own challenges. The president (Bob Odenkirk) was elected because he’d played a president on TV. Shortly before the party he told her he’s bypassing a second term so he can try something really challenging – making the jump to the movies. Charlotte gets his promise of an endorsement, and she decides to launch her campaign after negotiating a massive environmental protect treaty with a hundred countries. In the run-up to her announcement, she needs a new speech writer. Her chief of staff (June Diane Raphael) and primary assistant (Ravi Patel) have suggestions, but after meeting Fred again – and reading his material – she decides to give him the job.
The screenplay by Dan Sterling and Liz Hannah, from a story by Sterling, has a sharp edge in light of the current situation in Washington, even as they avoid easy, cheap shots. It doesn’t rise to the acumen of Aaron Sorkin’s The American President or “The West Wing” but it does provide a comedic comment on realpolitik verses the aspiration to accomplish worthwhile results. In a sense, the teaming of Sterling and Hannah has its similarities to Rogen and Theron. Sterling started out in TV writing for “South Park” and “King of the Hill” while also spending 2006 as a producer of “The Daily Show.” He’d previously written the Rogen/James Franco North Korea flick, The Interview. Hannah came out of nowhere two years ago when Spielberg did her on-spec screenplay, The Post. Director Jonathan Levine had worked with Rogen on 50/50, which showed he could handle a serious topic – cancer – while still making a comedy. That sense of balance is at play here as well.
Particularly delightful are Raphael and Patel. They provide the flint for the sparks that fly between Theron and Rogen. Serkis is unrecognizable – which isn’t unusual for him – though that’s normally because of motion capture filming. His media mogul Wembley is a blend of Rupert Murdock and Boss Hogg from “The Dukes of Hazard.”
While it might not hit the heights of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, or even of Dave, it does have a bit of the DNA of those movies: the hope that politics can actually help rather than simply exploit the people. That’s a thought that’s in deep peril right now. Maybe Long Shot can make us hope for better again.