In “Long Shot,” when Seth Rogen looks at Charlize Theron, his face lights up. Literally. At several key moments in Jonathan Levine’s romantic comedy, when Rogen’s character is gazing at Theron’s, we see lights reflected in the lenses of his glasses — the chandeliers at a fancy party, a laptop screen, an RPG.
It’s a nifty visual flourish that illuminates the puppy-dog devotion that unemployed muckraking journalist Fred Filarsky has for U.S. Secretary of State Charlotte Field. Written by Dan Sterling and Liz Hannah, “Long Shot” is a funny movie that’s as sweet (but not sappy) about love as it is smart (but not cynical) about politics.
Fred has had a crush on Charlotte since she babysat him when he was 13, which ended in a humiliating moment for him. It’s a testament to her decency that she never brings up that moment again in the film, even though every screenwriting rule in the book tells you that she would.
Their paths diverged after that — widely — but cross again 25 years later. He’s just quit his job at a Brooklyn alt-weekly because the paper was bought by a loathsome media mogul, played by Andy Serkis under heavy prosthetics. Serkis' performance makes his Gollum seem like a cool and cuddly dude by comparison.
Charlotte, meanwhile, ascended in politics to become U.S. secretary of state to a former TV star-turned-POTUS (Bob Odenkirk), which is about as close as “Long Shot” gets to referencing current American politics, thank goodness. He plans to step down after his first term to focus on a movie career, and Charlotte plans to run as his successor. Her devoted chief of staff Maggie (June Diane Raphael) thinks she needs to pump her “humor” quotient with focus groups, so Charlotte hires Fred to join her on the campaign trail and punch up her speeches.
Let’s face it. Physically, Theron and Rogen are a mismatched couple, and when Maggie likens Fred’s attractiveness to somewhere between Guy Fieri and a “potato in a teal windbreaker,” it has a ring of truth. But the two stars have terrific chemistry on screen. That chemistry is not just comedic — although they’re very funny together, whether rhapsodizing about Boyz II Men or engaging in the obligatory getting-high scene in almost every Rogen movie.
Underneath the steady stream of jokes there’s a palpable affection, and more importantly, mutual respect, between the two. Charlotte is very good at her job, works very hard at it, and the movie makes no apologies for that; a less progressive rom-com would suggest that she’s a workaholic who needs to relax and adopt Fred’s freewheeling ways. Instead, it’s Fred who gains a little maturity and responsibility by learning what kind of support Charlotte needs from him in her whirlwind life.
Throughout the film, Charlotte is pursuing a global climate deal that will both help the planet and her presidential campaign run, and her pragmatic get-things-done approach to politics sometimes clashes with Fred's idealistic take-no-prisoners style. (Yes, it's a rom-com that also foreshadows the 2020 Democratic primaries.) While Charlotte is clearly intended to be a Democrat, the film avoids taking shots at the other side, instead making corporate influence (in the form of the slithering Serkis character) its primary target.
Behind the two leads are a wealth of funny supporting performances, especially Raphael’s wonderfully arch turn as Maggie. Her disapproval of Fred would make her the villain in a different, lesser movie, but Raphael shows her devastatingly funny burns come from a place of fierce protectiveness toward Charlotte. Alexander Skarsgard is also unexpectedly funny as a hunky Justin Trudeau-like Canadian prime minister who tries to woo Charlotte, and O’Shea Jackson Jr. brings live-wire energy as Fred’s best friend.
In the end, “Long Shot” somehow manages to keep hope alive both for the romantic comedy genre and for the American political process, and that’s no easy feat.