If you’re going to make a blockbuster comedy about the potential first female president of the United States, who better than Charlize Theron to play her? Theron has spent the past decade both subverting and outright Hollywood conventions as an actress; she can handle all genres, all forms of comedy, and has already drummed up believable-ish chemistry with fast-talking comedians like Jason Batement and Seth McFarland. So it should come as no surprise that Theron is unquestionably the best part of Long Shot, a film that gets as much right about vulgar insults as it gets wrong about political satire.
Charlotte Field (Theron) wants to be president. Already the youngest Secretary of State in the history of the nation, Field has been hand-picked by the current president to succeed him at the end of his current term (as a former television star, he’s looking to make the jump into feature films). The only problem? America may have great respect for Field as a leader, but they don’t find her particularly funny, and her team needs her to punch up some of her speeches if she’s going to gear up for a landmark run at the Oval Office. Thankfully, a chance encounter with Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen), a childhood friend and former babysit-ee, gives Field the opportunity to punch up her speeches from someone who remembers why she got into politics in the first place.
Then again, the timing couldn’t be any better for Flarsky, who just quit his job as a writer at a Brooklyn-based publication ahead of their corporate buyout. Flarsky agrees on two conditions: Field must promise him that she actually cares about the issues he’s writing about, and she must carve out time for him to reconnect with her personally – to help his speech writing, of course. Nevermind the fact that Flarsky has been haunted by his unrequited love of Field since adolescence; here he has the chance to make a real difference in the world and maybe shape the next leader of the country.
So Flarsky embarks on a weeks-long campaign to teach Field how to be more personable. He plays her music from the past decade, catches her up on the various Marvel movies – she refers to Nick Fury as “the pirate guy” – and even inspires her to engage with modern fandoms on a more personal level. Her knowledge of popular culture is a collection of abstracted names and places; she knows the outcome for every character in Game of Thrones, for example, but only to allow her to navigate polite social interactions. Under Flarsky’s watchful eye, Field transforms into someone with a well-rounded personality and the ability to work 90210 jokes effortlessly into any speech.
And what does Flarsky learn? He learns to let himself be loved.
On paper, this mashup of Rogen-branded hangout comedy and political satire feels like an odd fit. In practice, it’s so much worse. Those already skeptical of most Rogen comedies for their gender disparity – the uneven playing field occupied by their male and female protagonists – will be disappointed that Long Shot doesn’t push harder against these conventions. This fact is no knock on Theron’s performance; Charlotte Field is a complex and powerful woman, and when the focus is more on her as a politician and less on her as a potential love interest, Long Shot delivers the brand of biting political commentary that it promises. But this mode of romantic comedy demands that she reinvent herself in his own image, and that is exactly what happens. She’s the one that manages a tense hostage negotiation while under the effects of last night’s dose of ecstasy; Flarsky sits in the other room and waits.
It’s hard to know what to make of a scene where Field lays on the floor of the White House, quietly begging for a normal life when the entire point of the film is predicated on her unwavering desire for greatness. The entire premise of Long Shot – that a female politician, acutely aware of the double-standards she faces as a presidential candidate, would go to great lengths to workshop her likability – is predicated on a precise understanding of American politics, so why does Long Shot seem so stubbornly apolitical? The movie makes broad gestures towards people like Donald Trump and Rupert Murdoch, acknowledging the comingling of money and power at the highest levels of government, but has little to say about political ideologies other than the idea that people should probably be more patient with each other. Long Shot asks the right questions; it just shows no interest in taking any of those answers seriously.
And that is the underlying tension in Long Shot that the film never manages to overcome. When the comedic back-and-forth Theron and Rogen is at its sharpest – and there are at least two dozen jokes in this film that will have the audience falling over into the aisle – the film loses its spark and backslides into familiar romantic comedy territory. However, when the film shows its fiercest flashes of intelligence – when Theron dresses down Rogen by explaining that showing emotion as a female politician is perceived as hysteria, for example – it becomes uncertain of itself and the formula it wants to follow. Maybe it’s a bit unrealistic to expect a Seth Rogen comedy to push the boundaries of political satire a little bit more, but in an era where there’s little to laugh about in the world of politics, this kind of upstairs-downstairs romance proves an uncomfortable match for its subject.