The past year or so has ushered in a mini romantic comedy revival. The dormant genre found fertile soil in the depths of Netflix algorithms, and by last summer had returned with a vengeance after “Crazy Rich Asians” exploded for $170 million. “Crazy Rich Asians” in particular was a reminder that rom-coms can still be great movies — and successful. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for a lot of its peers. All the mistakes that undermined the genre in the first place are on full display this weekend in the new release “Long Shot,” a film that wasn’t originally designed to be a rom-com at all.
To understand where “Long Shot” went so wrong it helps to remember the mistakes made by its predecessors. Trend pieces heralding the return of the rom-com behaved as if the genre’s disappearance was the result of mysterious market forces, unicorns that slipped away but are now returning to bless us with their magical presence. This is nonsense. The genre was doomed, like the Dodo, by (male) producers in Hollywood who stopped recognizing that the films needed to be fantasies for women, and not just men. “Pretty Woman,” “How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days” and “Love Actually” were replaced with films like “Failure To Launch,” “Knocked Up,” and “Good Luck Chuck,” — films that featured man-child protagonists who land beautiful, careerist women for no clear reason.
Trend pieces heralding the return of the rom-com behaved as if the genre’s disappearance was the result of mysterious market forces. This is nonsense.
Worse, almost all of these films suggested that the real problem here was that women need to stop being so ambitious — especially if they want to find true heterosexual happiness — and that imperfections in their lives had been caused by a selfish inability to settle for male mediocrity. It’s a message that's bad for movie plots, but it’s also a really terrible moral for moviegoers. In the age of 8chan and red pilling, the last thing we need is a pop culture movement driven by the idea that men shouldn’t have to try to get the woman of their (wet) dreams.
At first glance, “Long Shot” seems to be borrowing from this same tired playbook. The protagonist is Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogan), a political journalist who thinks hard-hitting exposés should have expletive-laden headlines and that political jokes should ideally include references to gay sex. He’s just quit his job with no backup plan and no savings because the liberal-esque publication he wrote for was bought out by a rich billionaire, as if this wasn’t a common occurrence in the Year of our Lord 2019. For his troubles, Flarsky is taken to a high-end party where he sticks out like the unshaven schlub he is. There, his unwashed presence is noted by Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron), another party attendee and our female lead. The problem is, this unlikely couple can’t actually meet cute. Because Theron is not just any high-powered, ambitious, drop-dead gorgeous woman in desperate need of an average dude to show her the error of her careerist ways; She’s the secretary of state and she happens to be plotting a bid for the presidency in 2020.
Improbably, Field employs Flarskyto help “punch up” her speeches, despite the fact he does not actually apply for the position. His job is to help make her speeches less stiff, and make her likability numbers go up. Somehow, despite his clueless privileged sneering at what makes her good at her job, they fall in love.
In short, this film is not really a romantic comedy. It is a poor attempt at political satire in the wake of Trump’s election that also includes a romance. Conceived in 2017, before the recent rom-com revival, the film was originally called “Flarsky,” which explains why he is the real protagonist of the film. The renaming and rom-com re-angling didn’t come until January of this year. Fans may think they’re going to see a romantic comedy, but what they get is Seth Rogan and writer Dan Sterling (best known for “The Interview,” the film that freaked out North Korea) working out their feelings about Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign in gross-out comedy celluloid.
The script lectures Field any time she is willing to compromise to get things done, while at the same time paying grudging if inconsistent lip-service to the idea that this is how successful politicians make it in big leagues. The movie culminates with a five-minute monologue earnestly educating Flarsky on the importance of “both sides!”
That this movie is at all watchable, and even enjoyable in some places, is due mostly to Theron’s performance.
That this movie is at all watchable, and even enjoyable in some places, is due mostly to Theron’s performance. Her turn in “Mad Max: Fury Road” shot the film to the top of early critics’ polls for the best films of the 2010s, and her work here is the only reason why marketing the movie as a rom-com almost works. Her Secretary Field is a brilliant, ball-busting negotiator who the script claims has shared elevators with the likes of Saddam Hussein. (That this doesn’t make any sense because Hussein died in 2006, when the character would have been 22 or 23 is emblematic of how little interest the movie has for political reality.)
She’s also someone who sacrificed everything, including her “fun” early years, so that she could run for president as soon as she turned 35. Theron makes the character’s sudden need to go just a little berserk in the final weeks before her announcement not only believable, but sympathetic. She even makes a scene where she negotiates with terrorists while rolling on MDMA work. Unfortunately, she can’t quite make it convincing that Field wouldn’t pull herself together and kick Flarsky to the curb on the way to her presidential run announcement.
It helps, somewhat, that Rogan understands the ridiculousness of this premise. Rogan, who starred in both the aforementioned “Knocked Up” as well as another rom-com killer, “Zack and Miri Make A Porno,” has had a decade to look back and realize how misogynistic those films were. At points, it seems he might even have put two and two together on the subject. The film as a whole also seems to realize its likability score, like Field’s, could use some work. But its fix for this, which is also what Flarsky uses to make Field’s speeches more relatable, is to drop gratuitous pop culture references, including multiple citations of Marvel’s “Avengers” and HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” This tactic is incongruously funny more because of the improbably perfect timing than anything else.
Considering the movie is opening against both of these far more popular pop culture franchises, chances are “Long Shot” will be a long shot at the box office this weekend as well — even with its blatant attempt to ride the rom-com bandwagon. Real romantic comedies deserve better than to have their brand marred by the immature slapstick antics of men who have no business being in their presence.
CORRECTION (May 5, 2019, 10:30 a.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated the movie's title. It is "Long Shot," not "The Long Shot."