The current conventional wisdom — conventional because it’s true — is that women candidates for public office struggle under an absurd double standard of expectations. If they show passion, they’re too emotional; if they play it cool, they’re robots. If they raise their voices, they’re shrill; if they stick to policy, they’re grinds. To add further insult, when they’re refracted though popular culture, the focus is often more on their personal lives than if the character were male. A randy rom-com about a female presidential candidate? Sounds exactly like what we don’t need at this point in time.
To further complicate matters, “Long Shot” is awfully funny when it’s not being completely preposterous — and sometimes even when it is.
We, the paying audience, are asked to believe that Charlotte Field, a supremely capable US secretary of state played by Charlize Theron, would fall in love and lust with Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen), an alt-weekly journalist who looks like a disastrously unmade bed and talks like, well, Seth Rogen. Odd couples are a staple of real life; what two people can discover in each other is often a mystery that remains delightfully unknown to the outside world. And odd couples in the movies can work, too, provided the oddities interlock enough for audiences to suspend disbelief.
That said, you may need a set of industrial-strength bungee cords to suspend your disbelief for “Long Shot,” because Hepburn and Tracy this ain’t. It’s not that Theron and Rogen don’t play sweetly and well off each other; they do. It’s that the movie’s foundational joke, that a twosome this radically mismatched somehow belong together, never quite squares. If you can squint past that, you stand to enjoy the movie. I did, mostly.
Written by Dan Sterling and Liz Hannah and directed by Jonathan Levine (“Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates”), “Long Shot” takes place while Secretary Field is jetting around the world trying to sign up heads of state for her global climate change initiative (its working title: “Bees, Trees, and Seas”). Under the radar she’s prepping to announce a presidential bid and has hired Fred, an old acquaintance newly re-encountered, to loosen up her image with humor and zeal. This against the advice of her frosty chief aide, Maggie (June Diane Raphael, turning a pig’s ear of a part into quite the silk purse).
The president (Bob Odenkirk) is a boob who was seemingly elected because he once played the president on TV, not like that could happen (*cough* the Ukraine *cough*) and there’s a creepy right-wing media baron (Andy Serkis under heavy makeup as a troll-size version of Rupert Murdoch) who either wants to bed Charlotte or destroy her. As Fred’s encouraging best friend, Lance, O’Shea Jackson Jr. comes further out from the shadow of his father, a.k.a. Ice Cube. Plus there’s a handsome Canadian prime minister (Alexander Skarsgard, blissfully game) who the tabloids want Charlotte to marry already but whom she knows has the charm of particle board.
What draws her, then, to Fred, especially after he has humiliated himself repeatedly and publicly with random acts of maladroit slapstick? To go with “Long Shot,” you have to believe that Charlotte is chafing under all that civic duty and yearning to let her freak flag fly — that at the end of the day she wants nothing more than a few laughs, a little rough sex, and maybe a trip to a European nightclub to drop some Molly. Which, granted, leads to a pretty priceless scene in which the tripping secretary of state has to talk a fractious Third World leader down from an international crisis while an entire situation room looks on.
For the most part, the dialogue is crude but cleverly so; the jokes are crass, but they land. And the leads convince us their characters believe they’re meant for each other even if we don’t. Rogen is always a sharper performer than his public persona admits, and Theron works to show us that the two sides of Charlotte Field — steely world leader and good-time Charlie — belong on the same coin. The final act of “Long Shot” hops the rail entirely with several developments (viral videos, public confessions, precious bodily fluids) that push the movie even further into some kind of demented wish-fulfillment fantasy. But I guess if you look out at the current political reality and decide this looks like an improvement, no one’s going to blame you.
Directed by Jonathan Levine. Written by Dan Sterling and Liz Hannah. Starring Charlize Theron, Seth Rogen, June Diane Raphael, O’Shea Jackson Jr. At Boston-area theaters, suburbs. 125 minutes. R (strong sexual content, language throughout, some drug use).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.