In an age where either big-budget franchises or intimate independent efforts dominate discussions of contemporary film, mid-budget comedies occupy a unique spot in the filmmaking landscape. While they can increase their exposure by casting famous actors or having an ample amount of jokes, modern comedies tend to rely on additional factors to boost audience interest. This could come in the form of casting minorities in leading roles, using nostalgic imagery to create a comforting setting or making its characters as vulgar as possible. As it turns out, Long Shot, the latest movie from 50/50 director Jonathan Levine, distinguishes itself from the competition by blending timely political satire with a tried-and-true romantic comedy.
On the surface, bringing politics into a light-hearted rom-com is an unconventional choice. Under many circumstances, most filmmakers treat political satire with priority and passion. Meanwhile, they often treat the romantic comedy as a way to provide an unchallenging bit of fun for audiences. While genre-blending is nothing new for Levine, whose film output includes the horror-infused comedy Warm Bodies, this is his first time incorporating political figures to the central plot. They are such diametric opposites that it almost seems that Levine and screenwriters Dan Sterling & Liz Hannah are trying to put themselves in an unfavorable position.
Yet for everything that stands in their way, the filmmakers overcome this challenge thanks in large part to how well its genre-blending mirrors the main narrative conflict. It certainly helps that it surrounds itself with a talented cast that can bring the story to life, but it manages to flourish on a higher level thanks to the many parallels between the story and the storytelling. After all, if the writers are combining humor, romance, and politics over the course of its 125-minute runtime, a similar thing is occurring with our two main characters.
On one side, we have journalist Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen, in his third collaboration with Levine after 50/50 and The Night Before), whose opinion pieces often reveal his cynical worldview and a total absence of an emotional filter. Furthermore, he is someone who heavily relies on drugs to achieve a state of happiness. On the other side, we have Secretary of State Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron), who plays the politics game so much that in her attempt to rise in stature, she filters her thoughts to appease people even when it buries her true beliefs.
Although these are two people that have encountered with each other as children, Fred and Charlotte represent opposite sides of the human spectrum. As Charlotte seeks her chances of running as the President of the United States in 2020, her interactions with Fred are unlikely yet highly satisfying. Due to Charlotte hiring Fred to be her speechwriter, they find themselves in situations that not only bring out their intellect, but also the intimate feelings that are slowly bubbling inside of them.
It is in the scenes with Fred and Charlotte where the romantic comedy aspect truly shines. Under Levine’s delicate direction, Rogen and Theron are fantastic scene partners that deftly handle both the goofy and sentimental scenes. In all fairness, Rogen playing the slacker archetype is so easy for him he can do it in his sleep – or more likely, under the influence. However, the character of Fred shows such deep care for Charlotte as a person that Rogen is able to add a new layer to the stock characterization.
As for Theron, she exudes all the authority of being a Secretary of State without struggling one bit. Additionally, it is a delight to see her commit to the wild comedy sequences that have been largely absent in her body of work. One notable scene requires her to “play the tough guy” – executed by way of wearing sunglasses and smoking a cigarette – in order to resolve a hostage situation, and the circumstances that bring her into the situation are arguably enough to make it one of the film’s highlights.
Not all of Long Shot exists as a showcase of easygoing interactions between charming, compelling characters. Before the two central figures even share the same frame, Sterling & Hannah’s script establishes itself as a biting examination of those associated with political power. Within the first fifteen minutes, we witness the President of the United States (Bob Odenkirk) wanting to leave office because he wants to pursue a career as a film actor. As a matter of fact, he seems to be more amused by his achievements as a television actor than his achievements as a president.
In addition, we see news broadcasts for Charlotte’s campaign featuring commentary on how being a female president is such an unprecedented thing to see. In addition to these moments being amusing because of how they provide a negative insight towards heavily opinionated people, they line up rather closely with American politics in the 2010s. While the satire takes a backseat whenever the film wants to embrace the romantic elements, it is nice that it retains some form of presence throughout.
This is not to say that it completely avoids moments of clumsiness, though. As much as the genre elements nicely mesh together on the level of plot, the filmmakers seem to fall down intermittently on the level of tone. The film’s antagonist is Parker Wembley (Andy Serkis) who is portrayed as a cartoonish figure that buys out smaller companies for the sake of it. Although Serkis brings admirable presence to the character, Parker’s wild mannerisms bring what has largely been a grounded film to a halt. Every second he is onscreen, it is almost as if the movie shifts into self-parody since he such a goofy supporting player.
The second major issue is something that that has always limited the romantic comedy from reaching true greatness: the boilerplate nature of the romantic arc. A side effect of rom-coms being light-hearted for most of their running time is that the final act requires lead characters to reach their lowest emotional point before they rise up for the ending. Much of the movie is spent presenting conventional ideas in an unconventional package, so for it to place the romantic section as its top priority in its final act feels like a betrayal to what has come before. Admittedly, the political edge and delightful comedy recover in its final fifteen minutes, but it is still a shame that Levine and the writers do nothing to freshen up this storytelling cliché.
Yet nothing could be further from the truth: Long Shot is a unique combination of crude humor, sincere romance, and a sly portrayal of modern American politics that also functions as a delightful star vehicle for both Rogen and Theron. Yes, zero of the individual elements are groundbreaking and some of them even detract from the overall experience. But Levine and company are dealing with such oddly shaped pieces that the act of playing around with these exact elements is still impressive on its own terms. There are plenty of opportunities for 2019 comedies to improve on this several times over, but it would not be a “worst case scenario” at all if this becomes the comedic peak for the year.
Long Shot is now available in theaters.
The film stars Charlize Theron, Seth Rogen, June Diane Raphael, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Ravi Patel, Bob Odenkirk, Andy Serkis, Tristan D. Lalla, and Alexander Skarsgård.