Jonathan Levine (2019)
So there’s a clown in the White House who used to be a TV star and has no real interest in governing, but only in using the presidency to further his own interests. And there’s a competent woman who happens to be Secretary of State who wants to run for president but finds that it doesn’t matter what her positions are on issues, only whether the electorate finds her likeable, while at the same time having to maneuver a minefield of judgments and expectations she would never have to consider if she were a man. Yes, I’m describing, of course, the new romantic comedy by Jonathan Levine (50/50) starring Seth Rogan and Charlize Theron—a film that, like most RomComs, has little in common with the real world.
But seriously folks, the film’s political milieu doesn’t really go beyond being an environment in which the comedy takes place. Long Shot is not the incisive political commentary that 1995’s Rob Reiner/Aaron Sorkin vehicle The American President was, or even Ivan Reitman’s 1993 Dave. Rack makes clear. But it recalls those films, which were popular when the protagonists of this story were in high school, as the nostalgic ’90s-music soundtrack reminds us. The political world in this film is simply what romantic comedies have always included as the “old society,” destined to be replaced by the “new society” represented by the lovers. The RomCom formula, dating all the way back to the Greek playwright Menander in the 4th century B.C.E., has always involved a pair of young lovers (in this film, “young” is a relative term) who want to get together but are blocked from doing so by certain figures and/or situations that make their hooking up difficult—this complication needn’t be especially serious (say the girl’s father has vowed not to marry his attractive younger daughter off until he can find a husband for his shrewish older daughter) or even plausible (the girl herself has vowed never to marry anyone whose name is not “Earnest”), but it must be overcome before the pair can get together. In this case, the “girl” is running for president, and her image is going to take a really big hit if it’s known she is getting it on with a schlumpy, uncouth unemployed journalist who doesn’t know how to behave at a state dinner.
I mean, let’s face it. Do you really see Rogan and Theron as a natural couple? Theron’s advisers try to tell her it’s not a good idea: Would the public accept Kate Middleton having a romance with Danny DeVito? they ask at one point. But I suppose it’s believable enough. One often sees apparently wildly mismatched couples who seem to be happy enough together. I mean, I could never figure out what a hot babe like Betty Rubble could possibly have seen in a short, dumpy dimwit like Barney but hey, who am I to judge?
As the film opens, we see Fred Flarsky (Rogen), a journalist having infiltrated a White Supremacist group, ready to endure a swastika tattoo in order to get his story. But his identity is blown by someone recognizing him from one of his online left-wing articles, and he escapes by jumping through a window, falling two stories and smashing into a parked car before getting up and taking it on the lamb, shouting a few choice verbal provocations as he flees. When he gets to his office, he learns that the independent liberal weekly publication he works for has just been bought by a right wing media mogul named Parker Wembley (played by an almost unrecognizably made-up Andy Serkis doing a scathing caricature of Fox News CEO Rupert Murdoch). In disgust, Flarsky quits his job.
Meanwhile Charlotte Field (Theron) is Secretary of State to a dufus, President Chambers (Bob Odenkirk of TV’s Better Call Saul), who spends his time in the Oval Office watching streaming episodes of himself playing the president on his old TV show. Chambers calls Field into his office to tell her that he has decided not to run for re-election in 2020 because he wants to use the presidency as a boost into a film career. This leaves things open for Field to make a run at the presidency herself, and she can count on Chambers’ endorsement if she doesn’t ruffle his feathers between now and the election. In anticipation of her run, she’s put together a team that includes hard-bitten Maggie Milliken (June Diane Raphael of TV’s Grace and Frankie) and the more high-strung Tom (Ravi Patel of TV’s Master of None) whose job it is to mold her into a candidate people will vote for. They get advice from an image consultant (a wonderful Lisa Kudrow in what amounts to a cameo that you will wish were longer) who reports, among other things, that the public sees Field as lacking a sense of humor.
So what we’ve got, as the film finishes its exposition, is a contrast between one character (Fred) who will cut off his nose to spite his face before he compromises one iota on any of his deeply held opinions, and another (Field) who seems willing to bend in any direction to appease her president and to charm the electorate in order to obtain the ultimate goal, the presidency, in the end.
Moving toward that required RomCom convergence, Fred seeks out his longtime best bud Lance (O’Shea Jackson, Jr., of Straight Outa Compton), who unlike Fred seems to have his act completely together as a prosperous business owner, but in required best-friend fashion takes Fred out to drown his sorrows with liquid and pharmaceutical assistance. Their night ends when Lance takes the seriously underdressed Fred to a formal fundraiser at which they can engage in wistful nostalgia over the vocal stylings of the favorite group of their youth, Boyz II Men, who are performing at the gala. But here, like Romeo spotting the love of his life at the Capulets’ wing ding, Fred sees Secretary of State Charlotte Field—and recognizes her as his childhood babysitter. What are the odds?
After an awkward reunion in which Charlotte learns that Fred is currently unemployed, mogul Wembley tries to corner the Secretary and Fred gives the smarmy Machiavel a piece of his mind, a gutsy move undercut by the faceplant down the steps that follows it. But Charlotte, looking for a new speechwriter to punch up her speeches with some humor, hires the unemployed Fred (over her staff’s objections), and he agrees to take the job as long as he can trust her not to water down her principles in order to curry favor with political power brokers. The rest you can probably guess from the expectations of the RomCom genre.
There is some movement in both protagonists from their initial differences: Fred does ultimately recognize that politics is the art of the possible, and that perfect, after all, is the enemy of good; and Charlotte finds that there are some principles that cannot be sacrificed. We might take some comfort in this message, but mainly we just like these two actors, who have a strangely workable chemistry in this film, and whom we’re glad to see get together. There are other standout performances in the film as well: Jackson is likeable and genuine as Fred’s old buddy. Raphael is icily protective as Charlotte’s right hand woman. Serkis is obnoxiously unlikeable as the media magnate, and Odenkirk’s clueless incompetence is scarily real as the lame duck president. In smaller roles, Alexander Skarsgård is excellent as a Trudeau-like Canadian Prime Minister who’s totally sculpted into a media image but is pretty much of a dork in real life, and Kurt Braunohler, Claudia O’Doherty and Paul Scheer do a hilarious lampoon of a Fox & Friends trio spewing an endless ooze of inane and inappropriate drivel.
Sure there are a lot of things in the film that are a real stretch for our willing suspension of disbelief. There are a few plot holes as well. But this is a romantic comedy, after all. Isn’t it a stretch to think that a set of twins, separated many years earlier, would show up in the same city at the same time and interact with the same people, causing much confusion? In fact, why not make it two sets of twins, and double the confusion? But wait—why not make the local Abbess their long lost mother? Long Shot may not be Shakespeare, but it’s probably more believable. Three Tennysons for this one.
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When Sir Galahad arrives in Camelot to fulfill his destiny, the presence of Lancelot’s illegitimate son disturbs Queen Guinevere. But the young knight’s vision of the Holy Grail at Pentecost inspires the entire fellowship of the Round Table to rush off in quest of Christendom’s most holy relic. But as the quest gets under way, Sir Gawain and Sir Ywain are both seriously wounded, and Sir Safer and Sir Ironside are killed by a mysterious White Knight, who claims to impose rules upon the quest. And this is just the beginning. When knight after knight turns up dead or gravely wounded, sometimes at the hands of their fellow knights, Gildas and Merlin begin to suspect some sinister force behind the Grail madness, bent on nothing less than the destruction of Arthur and his table. They begin their own quest: to find the conspirator or conspirators behind the deaths of Arthur’s good knights. Is it the king’s enigmatic sister Morgan la Fay? Could it be Arthur’s own bastard Sir Mordred, hoping to seize the throne for himself? Or is it some darker, older grievance against the king that cries out for vengeance? Before Merlin and Gildas are through, they are destined to lose a number of close comrades, and Gildas finds himself finally forced to prove his worth as a potential knight, facing down an armed and mounted enemy with nothing less than the lives of Merlin and his master Sir Gareth at stake.
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