Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron in Long Shot (Photo: Lionsgate)

Political rom-com Long Shot lost at the box office, but it’s poised to be an incumbent

Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron in Long Shot (Photo: Lionsgate)
Graphic: Natalie Peeples
When Romance Met ComedyWhen Romance Met ComedyWith When Romance Met Comedy, Caroline Siede examines the history of the rom-com through the years, one happily ever after (or not) at a time.

I remember the precise moment I fully fell in love with Long Shot. Secretary of State Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron) has just learned that in order to get the outgoing president’s support for her own presidential bid, she’ll have to compromise a major element of her progressive environmental platform. She slowly collapses onto the floor in frustration, then sends everyone but her schlubby speechwriter-turned-improbable-boyfriend Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen) out of the room. Charlotte vents that all she wants is to be a normal person who doesn’t give a fuck about what happens to the world. Instead of delivering a big pep talk or trying to solve her problem for her, Fred just gently responds, “I don’t know how to give that to you.”

What Long Shot acutely understands is that when you’re a hyper-smart, hyper-competent, hyper-independent woman who carries the weight of the world on her shoulders, sometimes the thing you want most is someone who just gives you space to be vulnerable in whatever way works best for you. Someone who makes you feel calm. The subtle, sometimes scattered arc of the film is about Fred realizing how much value there is to being that kind of support system. “I used to think the best way for me to change the world, to make it a better place, was through journalism,” Fred explains at the end of the film. “And I’ve realized that’s not at all the case. Really, the best thing I could be doing for the world is just supporting this amazing person.”

Long Shot’s critics (including The A.V. Club’s own A.A. Dowd) held up the 2019 romantic comedy as sexist male wish fulfillment—the umpteenth example of an uncouth, underdressed everyman paired with an impossibly beautiful woman, something that was already an established pattern in Rogen’s career. (At one point, a political aide compares Charlotte and Fred’s relationship to Princess Diana dating Guy Fieri.) Audiences weren’t much kinder: The film completely flopped at the box office. (Opening the weekend after Avengers: Endgame certainly didn’t help on that count.) But Long Shot is also very much a female wish fulfillment story. It delivers the dream that no matter how high-powered or job-oriented you are, you can still find a sweet, kind partner who’ll not only support your career, but sacrifice for it too. Long Shot is the rare rom-com to suggest that in order for women to have it all, sometimes men need to be the ones to compromise.

It’s a lovely capstone for the under-appreciated evolution of Seth Rogen’s comedic persona. Because the gravel-voiced actor has always looked about a decade older than he actually is, we don’t usually think of him as someone who became famous at a young age. But Rogen was just 16 when he landed his first major role on Freaks And Greeks and only 25 when he broke into mainstream fame with Knocked Up. While his sheepish delivery and penchant for dick jokes have stayed the same, the sorts of characters he’s played over the past two decades have grown up right alongside him. The sweet, immature man-children of Pineapple Express and Funny People became the more responsible (but no less funny) husbands and fathers of Neighbors and The Night Before. In Long Shot, Fred Flarsky is an idealistic left-wing journalist whose streak of immaturity is more in the vein of The West Wing’s Josh Lyman than the classic Apatovian slacker model.

Rogen gave his Long Shot demeanor a test run in a remarkably sweet supporting turn as a hapless divorcé in the 2018 Netflix comedy Like Father, which was written and directed by his wife, Lauren Miller Rogen. The performance inspired reevaluation of his potential as a genuine romantic lead. As Long Shot director Jonathan Levine put it, “Crafting him as a leading man, or helping him realize that, really was kind of effortless for me because I find him to be so charming and so funny.” Levine had previously helped Rogen mature his comedic persona in 50/50, the cancer dramedy that first proved the actor could do something beyond his standard shtick. Long Shot is another step in that evolution—both onscreen and off.

The long-gestating idea for the film came from TV writer Dan Sterling, who penned the script for Rogen’s controversial North Korean comedy The Interview. Rogen joked that he always knew he wanted to make Long Shot with Charlize Theron, but it took him seven years to become successful enough to get her onboard. Once she was, Rogen and Levine very much wanted the film to be a true two-hander. They brought on Theron’s production company as active collaborators on the project, and hired The Post screenwriter Liz Hannah to bolster Charlotte’s character. Theron speaks in glowing terms of how the whole team worked together to elevate her material.

Long Shot has a keen eye toward the absurdity of Charlotte’s life. She memorizes pop culture facts to make conversation, squeezes in standing “micro naps” between meetings, and modifies the way she waves based on polling data. The general stress of being a high-profile politician is compounded by the fact that Charlotte is a woman in a male-dominated field. Long Shot isn’t exactly a revolutionary feminist text when it comes to highlighting the gendered double standards of politics, but it also never loses sight of that thread of Charlotte’s life. When Charlotte angrily explains that sometimes she has to compromise in order to achieve her political goals, Fred shoots back, “Oh, why, because you’re a woman?” To which her “Yeah, motherfucker” is enough to make him immediately back down.

That Long Shot lets Theron swear like a sailor is just one of the ways in which it delightfully subverts her glamorous movie star persona. Theron has done puerile comedies, romantic dramas, and darkly comedic character studies before, but never something quite like Long Shot. The film utilizes her natural sense of poise and authority, but it also lets Charlotte be weird and funny. That’s most obvious in an inspired set piece where she negotiates a hostage crisis while rolling on molly. (“I’m not feeling all this aggression stuff. I’m into more of, like, a chilled vibe.”) But you can also see it in smaller moments throughout the movie too. In one scene, she randomly does an impression of Pauly Shore in Encino Man. In another, she absolutely loses her mind while watching a dramatic moment from Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

In fact, a big part of what makes Fred such a good match for her is that he brings out that weirdness. His adolescent streak allows Charlotte to enjoy some of the youthful joy she missed out on during her serious-minded teen years. And because Fred knew her back when she was just the idealistic neighbor who used to babysit him, he sees her as a person, not just a politician. Charlotte is used to living in a world where everyone is either intimidated by her success or just seeking to use her for their own political aims. Fred has a much purer sense of awe and infatuation—one that stems from a middle school crush rather than the length of her political resumé.

One of Rogen’s greatest skills as an actor is the ability to develop great comedic chemistry with his co-stars. And that’s beautifully deployed in Long Shot, not just in Fred’s relationship with Charlotte, but also in his dynamic with his best friend Lance (a great O’Shea Jackson Jr.) and his antagonistic relationship with Charlotte’s skeptical staffer Maggie (an equally great June Diane Raphael). Though Long Shot’s sunny gesture toward bipartisanship feels ill-fitting for the Trump era, the watered-down social commentary at least skates by on the comedic breeziness between Rogen and Jackson Jr.

To its credit, Long Shot offers some fun satirical jabs at our modern political landscape. Bob Odenkirk plays a president who got famous playing a commander-in-chief on TV and now wants to leave the Oval Office to make the even more difficult leap to movies. Alexander Skarsgård offers a delightfully ghoulish riff on dashing Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. And Paul Scheer, Kurt Braunohler, and Claudia O’Doherty barely exaggerate reality with their Fox & Friends-style morning show. (“Are women mentally unfit to hold the presidency? Here to chat about it are Chris Brown, Jeremy Piven, and Brett Ratner.”) The film’s biggest misstep is an unnecessary subplot involving an unrecognizable Andy Serkis as a Rupert Murdoch-esque media mogul, which demands far more plot than this hangout vehicle can really carry.

Flaws aside, Long Shot walks an impressive tightrope when it comes to blending Rogen’s signature raunch with some glossy ’90s rom-com throwback vibes. Long Shot is most obviously a cross between The American President and Notting Hill, but it also evokes the gold standard of When Harry Met Sally better than just about any other rom-com of the past decade. Like Billy Crystal in that Nora Ephron classic, Rogen is a bearded comedian whose romantic charms wind up being far more important than conventional movie-star good looks. And like When Harry Met Sally, Long Shot really sells the idea that its central couple actually like hanging out with each other, which should be a baseline for all romantic comedies but too often isn’t.

And while Long Shot doesn’t have anything particularly deep to say about politics, there’s something about Fred’s arc that feels intentionally instructive. He’s not a pushover, but he’s deferential and willing to admit when he’s wrong, especially as the film goes along. He doesn’t bristle at the fact that Charlotte has to put her job and her public image ahead of their burgeoning relationship, and he’s not threatened when she shares a headline-grabbing dance with the Canadian Prime Minister. That sense of trust makes Charlotte and Fred’s private dance to Roxette’s “It Must Have Been Love” (the Pretty Women version) all the sweeter.

“I mean, who wants to follow me around the world and hope I have five minutes to be affectionate?” Charlotte asks halfway through the film. It’s already clear from the way Fred looks at her that he’s the right man for the job. And in its own small way, Long Shot encourages other men to think outside the box in terms of what they might want the balance of their own lives to look like. For a Seth Rogen character who thinks a teal windbreaker counts as formalwear, Fred Flarsky actually isn’t a bad 21st-century role model.

Next time: Broadcast News gave the rom-com genre one of its most iconic love triangles.

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. Her interests include superhero movies, feminist theory, and Jane Austen novels.