It sounds like a very so-so premise on paper, that could be emerging onto screen eight years too late. Seth Rogen at his raunchiest and/or conscience-driven (or a witty combination of both), falls for her old babysitter, one year his senior, as she quietly pursues a run for the White House. There’s a foregone conclusion such a basic logline couldn’t equal unexpected, if not mostly timely humor, only to prove the skepticism inconclusive. Let there be no secret that Long Shot is appropriately funny, and often inappropriately. And director Jonathan Levine, reuniting with Rogen for the third time following the poignant 50/50, and middling seasonal romp The Night Before, has crafted a crude magnum opus, reveling in its R-rated looseness, while minimally encapsulating a Hal Ashby-like sensibility for its era.
Think of it as a mismatched Odd Couple, to an extreme degree, like radical extreme. Fred Flarsky (Rogen) is a hard-nosed indie journalist who can never seem to stay out of trouble whenever it goes south. His experience with trouble can’t prepare for his anti-corporate bias publication being bought out by the Murdochian eccentric Parker Wembley (a barely recognizable Andy Serkis). Unemployed, and uninhibited, Flarsky stumbles onto a chance encounter with an old flame at a random fundraiser culled by his good buddy Lance (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), and headlined by none other than Boyz II Men. And yes, what many have said is true, their cameo is all for laughs, and it’s a bold choice with some payoff. The meeting plays as a catalyst for what builds into a blossoming relationship with its unique set of challenges, the clearest being going beyond just the guise of Secretary of State.
Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron) was once Fred’s babysitter in high school, he had a crush, she wasn’t sure how to take the news, but that never swayed her own political ambitions, nor did the downsides of her role as a D.C. power player, far below her superior, President Chambers (Bob Odenkirk), a former TV star turned commander-in-chief now keen on breaking into the movies. Her sights now aim to assume his position, with a Clinton-esque pluck about her, but with one catch: She needs his formal endorsement as a guarantee to voters. As her campaign builds momentum, Field reluctantly hires Flarsky as a new speechwriter, with the aim to be both factual and humorous, posing late-night monologue stakes toward international diplomats on a worldwide goodwill tour.
Co-writers Dan Sterling (The Interview) and Liz Hannah (The Post) each offer their own experience with writing on elaborate, fanciful interpretations of politics in the media, and their cultural consequence outside of the US, and eagerly adapt for more truthful satire, if not border-lining on the elaborately fanciful, and lengthy. At 125 minutes, they milk the plot as dryly as one would expect, but the charm factor never wavers one moment. Levine is a real champion, rolling with those punches as he sees them, never striking the same beat twice. It’s almost like political poetry, and with the right amount of cursing, but the moments of romantic passion may be slightly underserved, if not an unwarranted deviation.
And yet, that may not completely faze those convinced that Rogen and Theron are an unexpectedly delightful pairing. No mistake, they are exactly what makes the journey worth embarking on, from country to country. For Theron, especially, if she may not be as well remembered for anything else this soon-to-end decade, let Long Shot be her finest hallmark. Rogen has proven he can remain on steady footing, but he just needs the right script to fit. That’s always been a challenge for the Apatow prodigy when it’s not his own script. His versatility is once more proven, without hesitation.
The rest of the supporting cast, all of them bent on casting doubt over Flarsky’s abilities, effectively fill out the rest of the picture with a high-flying, almost surprising amount of gravitas, compounding that of our leads. There’s the stench of big media, Serkis’s character (evidence toward a possible Oscar makeup nod), a bold reminder of why the man best known for his advancements in mo-cap filmmaking has earned a shot for more general character roles, burying deep into them equally. Alexander Skarsgård’s loving pastiche of Canada’s youthful Prime Minister floored me to my seat, a stark depiction if not overbearing, which wasn’t a bother, really.
Jackson Jr’s role as the supportive bestie is like a steady rock in a shallow body of water, firm on foot but easy for a reaction; his stock as an actor will only grow further. The late surprise, interjecting with their own unexpected chemistry is Field’s No. 2 and 3, the duo just hired to do right by their boss and NOT Flarsky. Maggie and Tom (June Diane Raphael, Ravi Patel) are loyal, reliable, and joyously conniving, if not also a bit distracted by their own objectives, including a small on-off romance of their own, which, to strong relief, bears no hinderance toward its fellow plot strings. Had they been given a little more to work with, had their performances been less shrewd or unfairly spirited, I’d have taken away more from their just being in the moment, the same way Charlotte and Fred are claiming to be.
Minor nitpicking aside, Long Shot still manages an almighty miracle. At the end of a decade where the comedy genre unhesitantly took a step backward before leaping ahead again, Levine has effortlessly aided in pushing for the latter, while continually improving on his own work as a legitimate comic auteur. Once more, Rogen certainly brings out the best in his collaborators, and not just himself, and with Theron by his side there’s no disputing how it could easily be the comedy to beat this year; not like its competition will be at all fierce. It may languish a little with its excessive detail and length, and yet it makes use of every moment to tell a compelling, timely tale, make it a glittering romcom not unlike classics of the day, but give it just a dash of R-rated oomph. All that combined ought to be something to revisit time and again in my personal collection, and everywhere else in between. (B+)
Long Shot opens in most area theaters this weekend; rated R for strong sexual content, language throughout and some drug use; 125 minutes.