2018 was a good year for Hollywood comedy films with big ensembles. Seemingly unmoored from the Apatowian miasma of improv-heavy slogs, movies like Game Night, Tag and Blockers were all refreshing playing fields of laughs and intelligent plotting. This year seems to be continuing the trend – first with the surprisingly heartfelt Instant Family and now with Long Shot, which is as sharp as a tack and very funny to boot.
The most surprising thing about the film is that it starts in squarely political mode, with an angry young white guy yelling obscenities in front of a Confederate flag. Quickly, it transpires that firebrand journalist Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen) has infiltrated this neo-Nazi group as part of an article he’s writing. He’s stopped in his tracks when media mogul Parker Wembley (Andy Serkis) buys his paper, setting him on a new career path when he bumps into his former babysitter Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron). She is now Secretary of State and is looking for someone to punch up her speeches ahead of a presidential run.
Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of story structures will be able to tell you that these two are going to fall for each other, but it’s thanks to Rogen and Theron’s killer comedy chemistry that you believe every moment. Theron, especially, shines as a character who’s a million miles away from the “workaholic shrew” that has become a tired romcom trope. She works devastatingly hard and lacks pop culture knowledge – she keeps up with Game of Thrones by reading Wikipedia – but also loves Pretty Woman and isn’t afraid of getting on the dance floor at a charity benefit when Boyz II Men take to the stage.
Rogen’s character, in a neat evocation of his trademark pot-smoking manchild persona, is a polemicist who expresses political views that have a sense of juvenile dichotomy about them. One of his articles is titled, simply: “The two party system can suck a dick (actually two dicks)”. The film gently pricks at these views throughout in the midst of its broad sideswipes at the political system which produced Donald Trump. Indeed, Bob Odenkirk plays a president elected after playing the role on TV (“I am not nuking a tsunami”) in a spooky premonition of what is currently happening in Ukraine. It’s a smart movie politically, with co-writer Liz Hannah having also served as co-scribe for The Post.
The balance between political comedy and romcom standards is nimbly maintained throughout. For every gag about how Theron’s character faces misogynistic prejudice in her job – she’s introduced in an outrageous right-wing news bulletin and the “elbow movement” when she waves is raised as an electoral red flag – there’s a broad gag about premature ejaculation or a scene in which Rogen drinks tequila from a ziplock bag.
But it’s the performances that are the most memorable element here. Theron, in particular, proves adept at physical comedy, managing to elicit laughs with the way she navigates a flight of stairs during an ill-advised drug trip. When passion flares during a Filipino civil war – better than Tinder, right? – both actors have done more than enough work for the audience to get behind their underdog romance. It’s a delight to see an on-screen couple portrayed as willing to just be silly around each other, which makes it easy to get behind them.
The supporting cast also provides room for some excellent turns, with Odenkirk’s dim-witted actor-turned-leader a highlight and Serkis relishing the hideous make-up job that transforms him into someone that looks like the product of Donald Trump, Rupert Murdoch and a turkey baster. June Diane Raphael is acerbic as Theron’s no-nonsense adviser, while O’Shea Jackson Jr. stands out amidst an ensemble yet again with his role as Rogen’s best friend. His character even gets an interesting wrinkle late on – nicely played by Jackson – that helps with the ongoing theme of shaping a new worldview for Rogen’s character.
But most importantly, Long Shot is very funny indeed. The script is as quotable and silly as it is heartfelt, packing in comic beats aplenty for both leads, as well as the supporting players. It would be wrong to characterise this as some sort of weighty political satire, because that’s not what it is, but nor is it simply a broad romcom with some sex jokes. By serving both of those audiences, it emerges as one of the most impressive comedies of recent years. It’s as surprising and enjoyable as, well, a schlubby journalist who wins the affection of a glamorous, powerful woman.
There’s hope for us all.
Dir: Jonathan Levine
Scr: Dan Sterling, Liz Hannah
Cast: Charlize Theron, Seth Rogen, June Diane Raphael, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Bob Odenkirk, Andy Serkis, Ravi Patel, Alexander Skarsgård, Lisa Kudrow
Prd: A.J. Dix, Evan Goldberg, Beth Kono, Seth Rogen, Charlize Theron, James Weaver
DOP: Yves Bélanger
Music: Marco Beltrami, Miles Hankins
Run time: 125 mins
Long Shot is in UK cinemas from 3rd May.