There are two fantasies at play in Long Shot, a political rom-com about a scruffy, unemployed journalist and his unlikely relationship with the glamorous Secretary of State who used to be his babysitter. The first is more or less the same formula its star, Seth Rogen, rode to stardom over a decade ago in Knocked Up, in which he played the unfortunate half of a one-night stand that leads to pregnancy and a deeper commitment to a more attractive, responsible, career-oriented woman. The second is about persuading a politician not to behave like a politician and expecting the public to reward her for it. Of the two, the latter seems less plausible.
It is not, however, unprecedented, at least in the movies. Long Shot is more or less a gender-swapped revival of The American President, a mid-'90s touchstone with Michael Douglas and Annette Bening that also wished for Douglas' Bill Clinton type to stop relentlessly triangulating and embrace the values that led him into office in the first place. (Its writer, Aaron Sorkin, would continue this West Wing wishcasting a few years later on television with The West Wing.) Both films even share the same pet issue, the environment, though the realities of climate change then and now make for a fascinating study in contrasts. Love and idealism become closely intertwined: "Mr. President," Bening famously tells Douglas when he lets her down, "you got bigger problems than losing me. You just lost my vote."
For the most part, Long Shot benefits from thinking of politics as a backdrop to raunchy, star-crossed romance rather than the other way around. It's confused and naïve — and about three years too late — about how presidential campaigns are waged, but Rogen and his co-star, Charlize Theron, are seasoned professionals in comedy and they spark off each other extremely well. The film may not know much about the ins-and-outs of international coalition building or realpolitik, but it's more than comfortable exchanging loose talk about pop culture and orgasms, or sticking Rogen in a funny-looking traditional Swedish suit. And that's enough.
Adding a teal windbreaker and cargo pants to his unkempt-slob repertoire, Rogen stars as Fred Flarsky, a journalist who loses his job when Parker Wembley (Andy Serkis), a Rupert Murdoch stand-in, buys out his Brooklyn-based alt-weekly. When he and his best buddy Lance (O'Shea Jackson Jr.) hit the town to drink it off, Fred bumps into Secretary of State Charlotte Field (Theron), who happened to babysit him when he was 13 and she was a 16-year-old running for student council. After the vain president (Bob Odenkirk) signals that he won't seek a second term, Charlotte and her consultants start ramping up her own presidential bid. But concerns about her lack of warmth and humor as a candidate lead to an out-of-the-box idea: What if she hires her old neighbor Fred to punch up her speeches?
Long Shot makes the hard work of selling its mismatched pair look easy, mostly through late-night work sessions that weave into nostalgia and inside jokes, but also through Fred reminding Charlotte of the idealism that he's seen in her since she was a teenager. That's The American President playbook, only it's the man who's treated to the glamour of state dinners and discreetly arranged hook-ups and the woman who's forced to confront how damaging such a relationship might be to her agenda and her approval ratings. And just as Fred and Charlotte try to keep their dalliances under wraps, the film itself wants to have as much fun as possible before facing its own tough political realities. The possible future president gets blasted on liquor and Molly, then deals with a hostage crisis. Good times.
When it finally squares up to the poor optics of Charlotte dating a flame-throwing, drug-using journalist with little regard for fashion or hygiene, the film chooses a cake-and-eat-it-too approach that may be the easiest way out, but also the most insulting to the audience's intelligence. To be charitable, Long Shot reflects the widely held hope that politicians are better off being themselves than allowing poll numbers and consultants to buff out the rough edges. But there's a reason why politicians like Charlotte are forced to compromise, especially when they're women and have to wriggle through the narrower parameters of what the media and the public consider an acceptable profile. The film knows that, but denies it when convenient.