Romantic comedies have an endless array of clichés to choose from. There are the mismatched lovers who are unaccountably perfect for each other, their respective wise-cracking best friends, the inevitable breakup and then the last-minute mad dash through the rain by one of them to win the other back. With Seth Rogen as a shambling, muckraking journalist and Charlize Theron as the glamorous US Secretary of State, Long Shot embraces every one of those tropes except for the downpour. Yet it is so cheerful and charming that it works as gleefully unambitious escapism.
In films from Knocked Up to Neighbors, Rogen has cultivated the persona of an overgrown adolescent and pothead. Theron’s career has been more versatile, including her Oscar-winning role as a serial killer in Monster. But she still registers first as a beautiful golden presence. Long Shot obviously cast them for those images, but the film works best as their characters evolve and the actors play against their usual types. It turns out that Theron is fun to watch as a goofball and Rogen is affecting as a sincerely lovelorn man.
The film gets off to a slow, misleading start, though. Rogen goes undercover for an investigative story, posing as a recruit for a right-wing hate group. When they discover that he is a reporter, he jumps out the window, lands on top of a taxi and gets up perfectly unharmed. The slapstick is as broad as his silly-sounding name, Fred Flarsky, and is echoed soon after when he tumbles down the stairs at a posh cocktail party. The physical comedy is entirely out of place with the rest of the film, but vanishes early.
Theron’s character, Charlotte Field, is an elegantly fashionable, ambitious workaholic, who is such a wonder woman that she intends to run for president. Bob Odenkirk, as the sitting president, finds comedy in a small role so close to the reality in Washington that it shouldn’t be funny. This president started by playing a fictional president on television, and wants to leave the White House for a job he feels is bigger and better: movie star.
Theron and Rogen have great comic and personal chemistry together
Against this backdrop, Fred, in his typical wardrobe of a gauche multicoloured windbreaker and baseball cap, arrives at that refined reception. He is a guest of his loyal best friend Lance (O’Shea Jackson Jr), who is trying to cheer Fred up after he has quit his job rather than work for the conservative media mogul who has bought his left-leaning newspaper. Charlotte is there, elegant in black, and they both remember a past that only makes sense in movies. When she was 16 and he was 13, she was briefly his babysitter.
The Secretary of State needs a speechwriter and soon Fred is jetting around the world from Sweden to Colombia (the locations actually look fake and shabby) as part of her staff, promoting her environmental agenda. His rival for her attention is her high-powered best friend and chief of staff, played by June Diane Raphael, who is justifiably suspicious of this boor who seems about to ruin Charlotte’s well-planned career.
It is all fairly flat until bullets fly outside the window during a political insurrection on a tropical island. Fred and Charlotte hide out alone in a hotel kitchen, where the adrenaline and privacy lead to a first kiss. When they become a clandestine couple, the film’s energy kicks in and so does another romcom element: the outlandish odd-couple pairing. In this, Theron and Rogen have great comic and personal chemistry together, their characters sharing a sense of happy surprise and bewilderment.
Coming out of Charlotte’s room the morning after their first night together, Fred asks the Secret Service agent protecting her, “Could you maybe not tell anybody about this?”
“They wouldn’t believe me anyway,” he says.
Some of the film’s swooniest and most comic moments involve Alexander Skarsgård as James Steward, the dashing Canadian Prime Minister, a role second only to Odenkirk’s US president as an echo of the real thing. The tabloid press agree that Steward and Charlotte make the ideal political couple. Rogen’s face as he watches her dance with Steward at a diplomatic ball is believably heart-breaking. Poor Fred. Skarsgård eventually gets to play against his usual dramatic type, too, in a hilarious scene in which a quiet date with Charlotte reveals the prime minister’s less sophisticated side.
By the end, it’s as if the actors have traded places, at least temporarily. For totally improbable reasons, Charlotte ends up wearing Fred’s windbreaker and baseball cap, high on the drug molly, resolving an international crisis. Of course it will never work out between Charlotte and Fred. But of course it will.
Politics, the media and climate change all figure in the story, but those topical issues are not important to it. At heart, Long Shot is as traditional as its genre elements. The least you can expect from a romantic comedy is that old-timey quality: it leaves you smiling. Sometimes that is enough.