Review: Theron stunningly powers ‘Long Shot,’ in which politicians try to act their age

There’s a lot of unsubtle implication in “Long Shot.” So very many will be turned off by it. I rather think it works in its favor.

The comparable presence of things said and unsaid – many times they’re one in the same – powers the movie’s comedy, its sweet core and the unexpected veracity of its progressive commentary, which provides the political rom-com a greater degree of substance than initially expected to the first third of that trifold description.

The movie is funny. Really funny. And the high levels of enthusiasm forming the foundation of its jokes and romance over roughly two hours, the stuff that makes watching “Long Shot” akin to peering into a warped alternate timeline of our own political reality, ensure the movie is simultaneously a time capsule of starkly 2019 window dressing and an evergreen suggestion of accountability on the part of those whose steady gaining of influence correlates with a slow drying-up of conviction at the well of power.

Heady themes for a studio comedy in the age of Donald Trump…it says a lot when you don’t know if that’s a statement of confidence or a question.

But “Long Shot” compromises between its seeming aggression and Apatow-lite humor more acrobatically than my words give it credit for. Director Jonathan Levine’s best movie since “50/50” isn’t a Trojan Horse for rah-rah political rallying. Rather, it’s the hands of politics as the iteration we’ve come to reckon with in an age of rage-tweeting from the Oval Office that’s tugging the horse along.

When Charlize Theron plays a blonde, successful secretary of state conjuring up presidential aspirations with 2016 still fresh, you don’t have to worry about the movie trying to lobotomize you. The match never quite reaches the tinderbox.

Instead, it’s the central performances of Theron and Seth Rogen who thoroughly captive, enamor and surprise, particularly in the case of the former. One of the film industry’s best-kept secrets of recent years has been Theron’s understated comedic chops, specifically when imbuing her humor with a weariness that feels increasingly of apiece with the age she’s working in. One needn’t wrack their brain to discern why Imperator Furiosa is a more widely beloved – recognized, even – pillar of feminine endurance than, say, “Tully’s” Marlo or “Young Adult’s” Mavis. But it does make her portrayal of, essentially, Hillary Rodham Clinton working under a completely inept President Chambers (a delightful Bob Odenkirk) enticing in the self-awareness of it all.

It also makes her a perfect on-screen foil to Rogen’s Fred Flarsky. If there’s one thing we know going into “Long Shot,” it’s that this pairing is on-par with, say, cinnamon and the leftover buds of a marijuana leaf. The screenplay, by Dan Sterling and Liz Hannah, able makes the most of the contradiction.

Fred is a successful writer for a small but feisty journalism outlet that still believes in the power of being-there journalism for a readership that would buy tote bags carrying its logo (think BuzzFeed or Vox). He’s the kind of mind who makes a living railing against the hypocrisy that Theron’s Charlotte Field represents simply be choosing to be in the environment she chooses to be in, though a connection from their youth would possibly like to have Fred thinking otherwise.

Sure enough, he gets the chance. He quits when his employer is bought out by a walrus of an entertainment mogul, his hair as flimsily styled as his worldviews. “He believes hurricanes are caused by gay people,” Fred says. Make your own assumptions about wherever the screenwriter got the inspiration for that particular character trait.

But Fred knows where to draw the line in the sand, and it isn’t working for a guy like this, as much a representation of the hypocrisy that looms large in this world as – if you’re the type to believe it – our own. Again, the politics in Levine’s movie aren’t demanding your money. We would never expect that from a person, a concept, a point of view that we know so well…right?

Fred thinks he’s in sync with the world around him, perhaps as much as we like to think we do. But they’re shunted to the side after a chance nightclub encounter with Charlotte; he immediately places her to the date, time and circumstance of their history…she just recognizes a face. As these situations are wont to begin.

Charlotte reads up on Fred’s work, the fire in his written words matching the ones she’ll inevitably use on the campaign trail, spurring the idea that he could join her on an international trip to touch up her speeches ahead of an official campaign launch back stateside.

From there “Long Shot’s” momentum springs fully into motion. The film’s middle act is its best, energized by the interplay between Theron and Rogen, who varying styles of humor – hers quiet, his brash – thread together into hilarity. Fred’s bright teal windbreaker at a political event; the not-quite-devious misbelief of Charlotte’s second-in-command; the cartoonishness of the aforementioned Steve Bannon-type…the seeds for the movie’s humor are often planted early in “Long Shot,” to usually hilarious results.

All the while, the screenplay patiently waters the plot’s fields for a relationship.

We don’t have to pretend like we’re blindfolded on “Long Shot’s” journey. The movie feels as fresh as it does old-fashioned, but it isn’t looking to break the wheel on which rom-coms have found their cinematic momentum. What awaits at the culmination of “Long Shot” isn’t far from where most of these movies have culminated, despite the ostensibly ludicrous notion of sparks flying between two characters so unlike the other. “Wait, that guy is with that girl?!”—the double-entendre of the movie’s title is laid bare before it’s even started.

Hell, the fickle thing’s marketing plays right into it. 

What “Long Shot” teaches, though, amid the continent-hopping and ensuing hilarity and strong central performances, is how much we can be held hostage to our optics. And our optics tell us, with a blade sharpened by the stone of societal expectation at our throats, that Rogen and Theron shouldn’t be together. The paint of increased contemporary clarity is still wet in mid-2019, and it’s used to color in what is a well-worn subgenre of Hollywood romance with a surprisingly deft coat of nuance that feels of apiece with the political environment Charlotte and Fred eventually fall in love in.

We’re used to seeing these stories play out in the halls of high schools, not embassies and political junkets. Aside from supplying Hannah and Sterling with an appropriate avenue for commenting on conviction and its sacrifice at the altar of adulting, the motif relocation becomes fodder for gags galore; one of the more memorable bits has Theron’s understated comedic talents on full display as she negotiates with a foreign adversary from an underground bunker full of military leaders while very much not in the condition to negotiate with a foreign adversary in an underground bunker full of military leaders.

It’s a rare, that’s-the-one scene in Theron’s career where a mixture of her talents come to the fore – entrancingly furrowed brow, near-atomic-level purpose, a drive to surprise – with undeniable, show-stopping magnitude.

Rogen, for the most part, holds his own against the Oscar winner. He’s willing enough to temper down his patented, inebriated, rebellious rejection of civility to allow the tenderness beneath the surface seep through. It plays vital in the end; after all the international hijinks, discovery of love and subsequent re-discovery, Fred and Charlotte feel like two characters who have actually learned something about themselves in the time we’ve known them. In a movie so gleeful about what makes our political realities so caustic, the they’re-really-only-children-masquerading-as-grown-ups grown-ups of “Long Shot” are in it for the long haul.

Hopefully, studio-backed romantic comedies continue to be as well, in a time when audiences shun them aside like the magnitude of voting on Election Day.

 

 

“Long Shot” is rated R for strong sexual content, language throughout and some drug use

Starring: Charlize Theron, Seth Rogen, June Diane Raphael, O’Shea Jackson Jr. 

Directed by Jonathan Levine

2019

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