In the charmingly upbeat political fantasy “Long Shot,” Charlize Theron plays Charlotte Field, the U.S. secretary of state and a 2020 presidential hopeful who could use a popularity boost. For anyone vying to become the nation’s first female commander-in-chief, that probably goes without saying. According to one of her many image consultants (played, too briefly, by Lisa Kudrow), Charlotte can gain ground not by better articulating her policies or sharpening her talking points, which nobody cares about anyway, but by cracking more jokes and landing a steady boyfriend.
This may be escapist entertainment, but it also has a hint of steel. As another election cycle gets under way, it’s hard not to look at Charlotte and think of the other supremely qualified women who have had to turn on the charm and check their ambitions, lest they be deemed (horror of horrors) insufficiently likable by the press and the public. As it happens, “Long Shot,” directed by Jonathan Levine from a script by Dan Sterling and Liz Hannah, is the most likable Hollywood romantic comedy I’ve seen in ages and, not coincidentally, the most ambitious.
That might not be saying much, given how rare it is to see a mainstream-movie character who actually harbors political convictions and gives voice to them. If this surprisingly barbed, disarmingly goofy and deftly played comedy were even more ambitious — if it jettisoned formula entirely, dispensing with a few awkward contrivances and raunchy sight gags — it might be more likable still. Nothing too extreme, just a breezy third-act rewrite of the sort that might come easily to Charlotte’s speechwriter, Fred (Seth Rogen), who eventually becomes her boyfriend.
Like Charlotte’s closest aide, Maggie (a wickedly acerbic June Diane Raphael), you might question the boss’ judgment when she hires Fred, a left-leaning advocacy journalist whose mere existence is an affront to neo-Nazis, big oil companies and anyone with a modicum of fashion sense. You might further question the judgment of the filmmakers, as some already have, for making Theron the latest Hollywood beauty — a list that includes Katherine Heigl (“Knocked Up”), Amber Heard (“Pineapple Express”) and Rose Byrne (“Neighbors”) — to suffer the putative indignity of being cast as a plausible love interest for Seth Rogen.
The apparent implausibility of the pairing, which Maggie at one point likens to a hook-up between Kate Middleton and Danny DeVito, is of course part of the joke. And Theron and Rogen, anchoring a story that gently and insistently strains credulity in every direction, put that joke across with easy, goofy assurance. To watch the two of them light up the screen as they casually bat their lines back and forth — Theron with a deft backhand volley to Rogen’s loud, boisterous serve — is to be reminded that chemistry, much like comedy, operates according to its own unpredictable logic.
Rogen’s Fred Flarsky, a name that seems designed to evoke Fred Flintstone, is a slovenly loudmouth who spends much of the movie in an ugly teal windbreaker. If he and Charlotte weren’t old childhood friends reuniting by chance at a swanky New York party, there’s no way he would have found himself working for a top-ranking government official. But Fred is also a sharp writer with a keen personal touch and a sincere belief in the global environmental initiative that is the cornerstone of Charlotte’s platform. The obligatory goofball hijinks aside, he leaves no doubt that he’s the right man for the job.
Fred may be a shlubby fish out of water, especially as the jet-setting action shifts to Stockholm, Barcelona and other opportunities for drive-by glamour and intrigue. But in studio-comedy terms, Theron is the proverbial guest in Rogen’s frat house. Or so it might seem at first. It helps that the writers present Charlotte not as a second banana, but as their most interesting and unpredictable character, someone who, when the news cameras aren’t rolling, likes to swear, have sex, stuff her face and dance to Boyz II Men (yes, they’re in the movie).
But it also helps that Theron has the kind of rare screen presence, at once intimate and superhuman, that can bend even the most rigid-seeming genre to its will. Only those who once doubted her abilities as a serious dramatic performer or a top-flight action star (or both, in the case of “Mad Max: Fury Road”) will be surprised by the deftness of her physical comedy and the sparkle of her line readings. Rogen may tumble down a staircase beautifully, but his co-star has the tougher task of maneuvering Charlotte through an international hostage crisis while she’s stoned out of her mind. Theron doesn’t oversell the routine; she hits just the right note of loopy, whispery understatement and lets the confetti in her hair do the rest.
By this point you might have guessed that “Long Shot” maintains only a tenuous link with reality. But that link is there, and it gives Levine’s satirical exaggeration just the grounding it needs. He secures your investment in the question of whether Charlotte and Fred’s secret-for-now romance will survive the brutal scrutiny of the campaign trail. He also keeps you laughing by surrounding his leads with supportive friends (including a strong O’Shea Jackson Jr. as Fred’s best bud), plus an entire nexus of political foes and allies whose real-world counterparts are not hard to guess.
Alexander Skarsgard amusingly warps his vowels as the Justin Trudeau-esque prime minister with whom Charlotte maintains an on-and-off public flirtation. That great chameleon Andy Serkis has no need of motion-capture technology this time, just some pleasingly droopy prosthetic makeup, to channel a Rupert Murdoch-style media baron. Kurt Braunohler, Claudia O’Doherty and Paul Scheer do a killer job of mimicking the hosts of “Fox & Friends,” periodically commenting on the action like an unusually sexist Greek chorus.
You never learn Charlotte’s party affiliation, probably because it would be redundant in a movie so unapologetically steeped in Hollywood liberalism. One of the movie’s most productive ideas is the way it sets Charlotte’s pragmatic centrism against Fred’s hard-left activism. (He’s no fan of the two-party system, which might furnish interesting material for a sequel.) I’m tempted to say that watching “Long Shot” is a bit like watching Hillary Clinton and a Bernie bro fall in love, except you might take that as a warning rather than a recommendation. Suffice to say the central takeaway, argued imperfectly but persuasively, is that romance and politics are both games built on a willingness to compromise.
Which leads the movie, for better and for worse, into some compromising positions of its own. I am not merely referring to the third-act shenanigans, at once too tidy and too gross, that bring the movie to its funny, fumbling conclusion. I’m also describing the story’s unfashionable, frankly incongruous optimism about the state of the world. At times it might remind you of a slightly edgier version of the genteel White House romances that flourished in the mid-’90s, like “Dave” and “The American President.” “Long Shot” may nod overtly to a world under threat by terrorism, corruption and climate change, but it also yearns for a gentler, less polarized moment in our political discourse.
The sitting president (Bob Odenkirk) to whom Charlotte reports may be a self-interested buffoon, but not one of Trumpian proportions. The environmental catastrophe that looms on the horizon looks salvageable, if the right policies are put in place. As for the brutally competitive 2020 election campaign itself, it’s discussed endlessly over the course of the movie and then finally left off-screen entirely. You might call that a sellout. I can’t imagine a happier ending.
Rating: R, for strong sexual content, language throughout and some drug use
When: Opens Friday
Where: Wide release
Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes