AUSTIN, Texas—With the demand louder than ever for movies and pop culture to reflect and comment on The World We Live In, perhaps it was inevitable that we’d arrive at a studio romantic comedy that begins with Seth Rogen undercover at a white nationalists’ meeting shouting, “Fuck the Jews!”
Deranged as it sounds, it’s irresistibly charming.
Rogen co-stars with Charlize Theron in Long Shot, the rom-com that is somehow insufferably traditional and clichéd while simultaneously inventive and current. More than that though, it’s a big ol’ crowd pleaser, one perfectly pitched to ignite the SXSW Festival crowd it premiered in front of into fits of laugh riots with its Trump-Hillary commentary, Rogen’s signature stoner-dork comedy, and nostalgic music cues.
Festival crowds tend to have an electric energy that can supercharge the initial response to movies that premiere there, and that may be the case with Long Shot, a sharp and clever comedy that earns plenty of laughs despite being about 30 minutes too long and offering little in the way of actual romantic chemistry in its two leads.
But there was the feeling in Austin Saturday night that you maybe really were watching the next great rom-com. And in case that inflated energy needed more juicing, Rogen and company brought along Boyz II Men for a surprise performance right after the credits rolled. This review was written while on a “Motownphilly” high.
The refreshing and unique thing about Long Shot is the way it engages in today’s culture. Romantic comedies are supposed to be escapist and utopian. Surely things like gender double standards, global warming, and newspaper layoffs don’t exist in them—and most certainly not Donald Trump.
While Trump is not exactly a character in Long Shot, Bob Odenkirk’s imbecilic former TV star president is, and he’s deciding to not seek re-election in order to pursue what is a higher calling than the Oval Office: movie stardom. Woody Harrelson and George Clooney are the only former TV stars to manage that, he says, and he hopes to be the next. (There is a Jennifer Aniston dig here that is so rude and wildly funny I screamed.)
It’s fascinating to put the glossy rom-com lens on these very 2019 issues, which we’ve become accustomed to pop-culture Windexing into uncomfortable clarity.
The sheen director Jonathan Levine and writers Liz Hannah and Dan Sterling put on them here isn’t one that’s meant to obscure, per se, any of the realities about how politics infiltrate life today, whether you’re the most influential woman in the world and played by Charlize Theron or schlubby and unemployed and perfectly cast as Seth Rogen. But it does offer a cheeky perspective on how we relate to each other at a time when we don’t really know how to relate to the insanity of the world.
Long Shot may be the first true, and maybe great, Trump-era romantic comedy.
The fairy-tale premise is so Done At This Point—doughy, nerdy guy’s charms somehow win over the impossibly attractive and together fantasy woman—that the Long Shot trailer earned its fair share of, “Seriously, we’re doing this again?” with its promotion of a Seth Rogen-in-a-dirty-windbreaker haplessly seducing the actual Secretary-of-State-But-It’s-Charlize-Theron storyline.
But it seems, unless we’re giving it too much credit, to have enough self-awareness about just that, and enough of a shrewd—if weird—perspective on politics and love in today’s world that compensates for it, too.
The premise is fairly obvious. Theron plays Charlotte Fields, the Secretary of State in this funhouse mirror version of our current political situation. Beautiful, driven, and twice as smart as anyone else in the room, she’s a fictional answer to the question, “Why does anyone in Trump’s Cabinet put up with him?” The answer, at least in Charlotte’s case, is that she plans to become the first female president of the United States, and she needs his endorsement.
But, of course, she’s a female politician. That means people have opinions not just about her policy, but also about her elegance, sense of humor, and even how she waves. On the opposite end of the fancy spectrum is Rogen’s Fred Flarsky, a disruptive Brooklyn journalist whose desire to cause a stir with pieces like the one on white nationalists no longer has an outlet. His newspaper lays him off.
A series of rom-com contrivances find Rogen and Theron at the same swanky party where Boyz II Men is performing. They instantly recognize each other from a past life: Charlotte used to babysit Fred. He’s always been in love with her. She’s always found him amusing. That’s still the case, it turns out. She reads his clips and swoons over his prose. She hires him as a speechwriter to help her sound more down-to-earth and funnier. Obviously, they fall in love. (Matt Bomer, if you’re reading this, this is all very realistic. Call me.)
But the realism both is and isn’t the point.
Romantic comedies are a delicate thing. Cinephiles and film obsessives talk about comic book movies and sci-fi culture and horror tropes and the accuracy of biopics and all these things that are for some reason meant to be more highbrow than rom-coms. But rom-coms are a delicate art, a precarious tightrope walk between aspiration and escapism on the one foot, and attainability and relatability on the other. We want to see ridiculously attractive and magnetic people fall in love amidst impossible circumstances. We also want to feel like, even if we know we’re feeding delusion, it could happen to us. Lean too far one way, and you fall off the rope.
Maybe that’s where the schlubby guy gets the hot-as-Charlize Theron girl trope came along. (And with it, the icky feeling thing where no one has any qualms about pointing out the un-Adonis-like attributes of a romantic lead like Seth Rogen. Sorry, Seth.) But with that trope comes baggage, and exhaustion over it.
It’s frankly a little surprising considering the gender-dynamic conversations the industry is having that Rogen is once again engaging that trope, considering that Knocked Up and what happened to Katherine Heigl for acknowledging her own concerns about it played a part in unfairly derailing her career. Theron all but acknowledged that very thing after the screening, saying that while she’s always worshipped Rogen’s work, she had fears that she’d sign up for “the Seth Rogen movie and I would be the girl who just stands there.”
She does far more than that in Long Shot. Her talents are obviously infinite; this is an actress whose resume includes Monster, Mad Max: Fury Road, Atomic Blonde, Young Adult, and about 400 other genres in between those projects. It tracks that Charlize Theron in a romantic comedy would be spectacular. That she plays an alt-universe Hillary Clinton is simply the cherry on top.
But still, navigating the land mine of rom-com tropes is dangerous, and Long Shot was going to have to earn its goodwill given the dynamic it was peddling.
SXSW makes for a particularly interesting premiere venue for a movie like Long Shot, which calls on political satire in a rom-com in a way that no movie since The American President has, owing as much to Veep as it does to the Richard Curtis classics we love, like Notting Hill or Four Weddings and a Funeral. The same day that Long Shot premiered, Beto O’Rourke, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, and Howard Schultz all made stump stops in Austin.
Eyes are maybe more sharpened than they would otherwise be for commentary in what could be dismissed as a silly and fun high-concept comedy. But you do analyze every frustration Charlotte has for a statement on what it means to be a female politician and the double standards she may face. And you do groan a little bit when she has to choose between the career she’s fought for and the goofy man she loves—and then makes the obvious (but kind of annoying) choice you figure she would.
It certainly helps that the choice involves a masturbation video, Seth Rogen with cum in his beard, and a shrewd indictment of slut-shaming, invasion of privacy, and the weaponizing of tech culture today. That’s new. (The movie’s smart, but oh boy, is it Rated R.) Still, when the movie scores so many points for lampooning today’s world, you might wish for a bit more realism when it comes to Charlotte’s big decision.
Earlier, we wondered if Long Shot could be the next great rom-com. It has the potential to be a hit. If nothing else, it will be the next great rom-com we watch hungover on TBS on Sunday afternoons from here to perpetuity. But it has an advantage over the other entries in that hallowed grouping: none of them have someone calling Seth Rogen “The Cum Guy.”