It’s tempting to overvalue Long Shot, in which smart presidential candidate Charlize Theron falls for slobbola malcontent speechwriter Seth Rogen. It has been made for grown-ups, though with Rogen onboard that doesn’t preclude penis jokes. (And why should it? I ask.) Also, it’s a rom-com and Hollywood supposedly isn’t keen on rom-coms anymore — or anything that won’t generate a “franchise.” It features a center-left female presidential aspirant, which could hardly be more in sync with our daily Twitter feeds. And its actors seem to have worked to wobble-up their banter to keep from snapping into predictable sitcom rhythms. Theron is nimble but takes enough off her fastball to signal her vulnerability, and there’s an actress who’s new to me (she made her mark on TV) named June Diane Raphael who turns a stick-in-the-mud character into a primal force. It feels as if it has bite — even when it’s only gumming you into submission.
Theron plays Charlotte Field, the secretary of State to a feckless boob president (Bob Odenkirk) who decides to make a run for the presidency herself. Rogen is Fred Flarsky (the name tries too hard), an investigative journalist who’s first seen infiltrating a white-supremacist gang and heartily shouting, “F*** the Jews!” — a scene that makes you think the film will be wilder than it turns out to be. Fred decamps when a Rupert Murdoch–type buys his small Brooklyn paper and he bumps into Charlotte at a hoity-toity reception to which his rich buddy (Lance O’Shea Jackson, Jr.) has dragged him. By God, he knew her — as his babysitter, when he was 13! She saw his 13-year-old boner! Once that giggle-and-squirm is out of the way, Field hires Flarsky to write jokes for her speeches on account of her needing to lighten up (as female candidates must, we’re told, to keep from seeming too tight). Of course, he ends up charming the pants off her — to the horror of her cynical, superficial campaign manager, Maggie Millikin (Raphael), who thinks the optics are all wrong. I’m in her camp.
I generally like Rogen a lot but this performance is bad — worse than it even seems because of the drain it is on the movie. In life, the actor has a passion for lefty politics, but his shtick is based on a stoner’s lack of commitment, and as Fred Flarsky he has a detached, “let’s pretend” air. He seems only half-in — not because Rogen doesn’t believe in the material (he’s one of the film’s many producers) but because laying back is what he does. For what’s missing, consider the recent 30th anniversary screening of Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything at the Tribeca Film Festival, where Crowe mentioned that for a key scene in which the flaky hero Lloyd Dobler (who also wants to win a princess) articulates his political grievances, actor John Cusack came in with an eight-page rant that touched on everything wrong with the Reagan era, and Cusack and Crowe shaped it into something memorable. That’s the kind of stuffing Rogen’s Fred doesn’t have. He should be untamable, with ideas and observations popping out willy-nilly, instead of low-energy and self-satisfied. It’s possible that the screenwriters Dan Sterling and Liz Hannah (Sterling has the story credit) worried that if Fred dazzled Charlotte with his ideas then the relationship would be rooted in mansplaining. But without some variation on that, you can’t see what turns Charlotte on — unless it’s the blandly smutty talk and butt-slapping in the sex scenes, suggesting the “good girl” longs to get gross.
Long Shot is full of screwball supporting characters, but most of them (Odenkirk, Alexander Skarsgaard as a gorgeous but vapid Canadian PM) get only one real joke apiece, and the director, Jonathan Levine doesn’t give them space to get any tricky rhythms going. (The dark-toned cinematography by Yves Belanger is too beautiful and composed for this kind of comedy.) Levine’s mistake with Theron is letting her be a less-than-dynamic speaker — Theron acts the words instead of selling them the way a real politician would. Theron is a treat in just about anything — her engines fire even when her material sputters — but this is yet another movie in which the politician allows herself to be compromised and then throws away a prepared text and does what’s right. (That never happened for real until Trump, although he throws away his prepared texts and does what’s wrong.)
Raphael is Long Shot’s only happy surprise. Raphael’s lines are good — Maggie dislikes Fred from the get-go — and her attack is better. Her Maggie is always hovering, scrutinizing, making snap judgments that actually snap — and sting. “There’s no way the two of you work,” says Maggie, succinctly, and I wish the filmmakers had felt more of an obligation to answer that charge. Maybe they need to slap our butts.