‘Long Shot’ Proves Viral Marketing Doesn’t Work, But Charlize Theron Does

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Last week, a British gossip writer went viral with a tweet comparing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s allegedly schlubby boyfriend Riley Roberts to a “bin raccoon.” In an incredible stroke of serendipity, it sped around the world inspiring parody memes the same day as Long Shot was released, a comedy starring Charlize Theron as a presidential candidate and Seth Rogen as her unlikely, Seth Rogen-esque boyfriend.

You’d think it would’ve made for perfect viral marketing. Instead Long Shot underperformed, and in retrospect, you wonder if the pile-on helped advertise the film or exposed its fatal flaw. We may marvel at the Rogen-esque man getting the girl, but should we root for it?

Long Shot is directed by Jonathan Levine, whose work I’ve enjoyed in the past (50/50 and The Night Of in particular didn’t get nearly enough credit), funny without feeling forced, and heartfelt without feeling saccharine. In Long Shot you can still sense his flair for tonal balance, but this story lacks the highs and lows: it keeps threatening to be funny or poignant but never quite achieves either. The dominant impression is of a group of talented people, and especially a standout Charlize Theron, working their asses off in service of a concept that, in some fundamental way, doesn’t really work.

Rogen plays Fred Flarskey (one of those overly-quirky character names that’s generally a red flag in the same way that comedians who look like they’ve worked hard on a quirky appearance rarely have funny material) a writer at an alt-weekly who speaks truth to power in his own idiosyncratic way, in pieces like “The Two Party System Can Suck A Dick (Two Dicks, Actually)” and “FUCK EXXON.” The first scene sees Flarskey infiltrating a gathering of neo-Nazis, who discover that he’s a spy just as they’re about to finish his swastika tattoo. He jumps out a two-story window to escape, crashing down on top of a car — cue that sped-up CGI slapstick that audiences from Neighbors to Daddy’s Home were supposed to find so hilarious. I’d love to see both that and the inevitable “character gets too high” sequence that’s in every Rogen movie (including this one) take their place in the comedy graveyard, alongside anchovies on pizza jokes and party animals wearing lampshades on their heads.

The film also seems to have transposed snarky blogger and gonzo reporter, contributing to Flarskey’s convoluted character development. People consistently treat him as if he’s some slacker schlub, as if he didn’t just risk his life to take some Nazis down a peg then jump out a window like Jason Statham.

Anyway, Flarskey loses his job when his Brooklyn Advocate gets bought by some Roger Ailes-esque rightwing ghoul played, in heavy make-up, by Andy Serkis. Flarskey’s best friend, a hip boss type played by O’Shea Jackson Jr., takes him to a fancy benefit dinner to cheer him up, and it’s there that Fred sees Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron), the unattainably perfect career woman Secretary of State. Turns out Field and Flarskey have a connection, thanks to one of Fred Flarskey’s childhood boner mishaps. She takes a shine to him, eventually getting him an interview as her speechwriter, much to the chagrin of her assistant, played by June Diane Raphael.

There’s a long tradition of schlubby men getting makeovers in order to get the girl. Which makes sense, because Seth Rogen, as with most schlubby men, is really only as schlubby as his presentation. Take away the constant weed references and he’s basically a pre-makeover Chris Pratt. There’s also something to be explored, as the recent AOC episode shows, on the topic of the kinds of men powerful women are forced to settle(?) for.

The trouble with Long Shot is that it can’t seem to decide whether Fred Flarskey is too schlubby or too uncompromising. If he’s too schlubby and just needs a makeover, then it’s a hackneyed rom-com. If he’s too uncompromising… then apparently we have to root for him to compromise, which is hard to do when he’s literally surrounded by Nazis.

Levine and his screenwriters, Dan Sterling (Girls) and Liz Hannah (The Post) seem to be attempting to have the uncompromising Flarskey help the ambitious Fields remember her principles, while Fields teaches Flarskey an important lesson about sacrificing ideological purity for the greater good. There’s even a scene where Flarskey finds out that his best friend, O’Shea Jackson Jr’s character, is both a Christian and a Republican, which I guess is meant to teach us an important lesson about bipartisanship? (Which goes over like a lead balloon in 2019, when the Republican party’s only consistent ideology is trolling libs.)

Charlize Theron is so magnetic as Fields, a precocious do-gooder who has sacrificed so much in her personal life that she’s learned to nap standing up, that she almost single-handedly makes this premise compelling. But the story is both hard to believe and hard to figure out who to root for, and romcoms can generally be one or the other, but not both.

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.