Set in an alternative universe – similar, but far from identical to ours – where a former TV star becomes president (because he played one on a popular, long-running show), an ultra-right-wing Rupert Murdoch-clone rules the airwaves (among other media), and where a Seth Rogen-looking character (played by Seth Rogen) somehow manages to make the jump from unemployed, lefty journo to head speechwriter for a secretary of state, future presidential candidate, to one-half of an unconventional romantic couple, the Jonathan Levine-directed Long Shot asks a tremendous amount from paying audience members and down-the-road future streamers: To set aside any all reality-world doubt and embrace the sheer wish-fulfillment fantasy inherent in the overused schlub-romances-a-beauty-queen-with-brains premise. If you can buy in, if you can get past what any reasonable person would consider the equivalent of a Big Ask, then Long Shot has a semi-random assortment of party favors and weed-soaked pleasures on offer for sporadic enjoyment and/or entertainment.
When we first meet Fred Flarsky (Rogen), a Brooklyn-based, alt-left journalist, he’s sitting uncomfortably in a room full of American Nazis as they celebrate bigotry, hatred, and racism. Unbeknownst to the American Nazis, Flarsky is a member of the Jewish faith (as is Rogen, that’s the crux of the joke and the source of the scene’s humor). Flarsky’s mask eventually slips, leading to a quick escape via a two-story drop and a hard landing on a nearby car. It’s neither the first nor the last time Flarsky proves practically immune to physical injury (he literally walks it off, adding another layer of implausibility to a story that desperately wants audiences to believe in its premise and characters). Worse for Flarsky, his Nazi expose goes nowhere when he discovers that the Rupert Murdoch-inspired Parker Wembley (Andy Serkis, nearly unrecognizable under pounds of latex) has bought out his weekly, leaving Flarsky – or so he thinks – with no alternative except to uphold his principles and quit.
Flarsky’s second, almost fatal fall, this time down a flight of stairs at a benefit gala, occurs after an afternoon of drinking and smoking weed with his far more socially and financially successful best friend, Lance (O’Shea Jackson Jr.). Flarsky becomes a viral sensation, exactly what he needs to convince his onetime-crush-turned-Secretary-of-State, Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron), that Flarsky’s the man she needs in her life at that particular point in time, not as a potential romantic partner, but as her chief speechwriter, helping in turn to both soften and polish her public persona before she declares her intentions to take over for President Chambers (Bob Odenkirk), a buffoonish TV-star-turned-president eager to resume his screen career (as a movie star this time). Subtle isn’t the word anyone would use to describe Chambers: He’s pure caricature, broad, obvious, funny the first time he enters the film, less funny with each repeat appearance.
With the central relationship between Flarsky and Charlotte set, Levine and his screenwriting team, Dan Sterling (Girls) and Liz Hannah (The Post, Reign Over Me), work incredibly hard to move Flarsky and Charlotte from acquaintances to boss-employee and finally to romantic partners via the usual dichotomies: She’s an overachiever, a workaholic, passionate about politics and government as a potential force for good while he’s an underachiever, a slacker, cynical about politics and government as a potential force for good. They’re drawn together by proximity (a world tour), speechwriting (Flarsky mines her personal history for anecdotes he can drop into her speeches), and an ill-fated trip to an Asian country in the middle of a civil war.
Maybe it says something about us as moviegoers that the Flarsky-Charlotte relationship never crosses into believable or plausible territory. That it even comes close multiple times is probably a credit or testament to Rogen and Theron (an Oscar winner). Central relationship aside, Long Shot suffers from another key problem: Whatever we see or hear of Flarsky’s supposed writing talent falls short of impressive. It’s crude, vulgar, and even worse by any standard, completely uninspired. Charlotte also connects with Flarsky over their mutual obsession with decades-old old pop culture, but the jokes Levine and his screenwriting team inject into the dialogue or Charlotte’s speeches are more cringe-inducing than laugh producing. And all the F-bombs in the world, however welcome given our current political climate, subtract more than they add.