In many ways, Long Shot is a traditional rom-com to its teeth: there are slapstick antics and getting-to-know-you montages and familiar pop tunes aplenty; the supporting figures include sensible besties and backstabbing rivals and foolish authority figures; our heroine, when depressed, consumes a pint of Häagen-Daaz in her bathrobe. But it's been a long, time time since a Hollywood feature made me as thunderously happy as I was during director Jonathan Levine's showcase for Charlize Theron, Seth Rogen, and the nearly forgotten pleasure of old-school, grown-up screen romance. And yes: I just referenced “Seth Rogen” and “grown-up” in the same sentence. I also referenced “Seth Rogen” and “Charlize Theron” in the same sentence. We can argue later about which seemed less likely.
Your first hint that Long Shot might be something more than – or at least significantly different from – the norm lands in its first seconds, with the film's opening credits underscored by the braying of an incensed white supremacist rallying his troops at a pro-Nazi gathering. (A Katherine Heigl flick this already ain't.) Among the potential recruits is Rogen, whose Fred Flarsky is shown making hilariously weak attempts at mimicking his hosts' racism when he's identified as a muckraking (and Jewish) journalist working undercover and live-streaming the experience. It's an edgy, subversive, legitimately scary, and unexpectedly daring start to a rom-com. Ultimately, however, it will also prove a fantastically smart one, with screenwriters Dan Sterling and Liz Hannah immediately establishing Fred's tenacity, bravery, selflessness, and occasionally reckless stupidity – all of which comes into play when he enters a relationship with Charlize Theron's Charlotte Field, the current Secretary of State making a bid for the presidency.
After the journalist is hired as the politician's speechwriter, the crux of the movie, as we'd expect from this genre, lies in watching how the uncouth, schlubby Fred and the elegant, statuesque Charlotte grow from work partners to romantic partners. Its chief inspiration, however, lies in Fred's and Charlotte's shared history, because it turns out that Charlotte spent several years as Fred's boyhood babysitter. (She's about three years his elder.) When their adult selves finally reunite, the moment is peerlessly sweet – Charlotte grinning and laughing and reminiscing with what is either friendly or maternal warmth; Fred deliriously agog that this stunning beauty and world power would remember him, let alone like him. What's even better about their first adult encounter, though, is that it's so promising. It only takes a few seconds of repartee to correctly determine that Theron and Rogen, despite their odd-couple physical match, are going to play off each other beautifully in Long Shot. Opposites in seemingly every apparent way, they effortlessly suggest long-separated childhood pals eager to catch up. But the screenwriters and performers have also cannily established both characters as funny, savvy, hard-working professionals with deeply entrenched principles yet vastly dissimilar styles. (Charlotte favors compromise; Fred writes articles with headlines such as “The Two-Party System Can Suck a D---.”) Unlike most modern rom-coms, of which there have become perilously few, Levine's film isn't primarily about whether the leads will or won't become a couple. It's about whether their obvious mutual affection will be able to withstand their even more vital affections for their jobs. You may think the movie is going to be an opposites-attract comedy in the vein of Knocked Up. It's far closer in spirit to the workplace comedy Broadcast News.
Like that 1987 classic, Long Shot is teeming with exceptional supporting turns. Bob Odenkirk probably wins best-in-show honors for his hysterically obtuse U.S. president – a man elected after he played a fictitious president, for 10 seasons, on a popular TBS drama – who's hoping his present gig as Leader of the Free World will open doors to a movie career. (You may think this plot point places the film squarely in the realm of make-believe ... but let's wait and see.) He's nearly matched by O'Shea Jackson Jr. as Fred's corporate-head buddy and Andy Serkis – almost as unrecognizable here as he is playing Gollum – as a pathologically obnoxious Rupert Murdoch stand-in. And all throughout are sizzling, wonderfully specific comic turns, with Sterling's and Hannah's script finding deserved room for June Diane Raphael, Ravi Patel, Randall Park, Tristan D. Lalla, Lisa Kudrow (in a one-scene cameo), and Alexander Skarsgård, the latter playing a Justin Trudeau type if Justin Trudeau were a complete nimrod.
Yet it's Rogen and Theron, as it should be, who make Levine's film so magically winning. Rogen has been away from anything even remotely resembling a rom-com role for so long now (was his last one actually in 2007's Knocked Up?!) that it's exciting to remember how appealing he can be when his natural gift for raunch – this movie giving him several opportunities to demonstrate it – collides with his far-less-employed gifts for abashedness and sincerity. And Theon, as she is with blessed regularity, is again a marvel. While obviously having a blast enacting Charlotte's inner dweeb (she waves like someone who learned how, poorly, from a book), Theron appears so staggeringly confident in all of her character's public and private personae that she's equally mesmerizing whether making an impassioned declaration on television or delivering a priceless, Lucy-esque spit take. She and Rogen are individually fabulous and even finer together, and in one scene, as they dance, the stars even make a convincing argument for Roxette's “It Must Have Been Love” being not only, as their characters insist, the best song ever written, but the best song ever employed for maximum swoon in a Hollywood rom-com. Say Anything... fanatic that I am, I'm still in the tank for Peter Gabriel's “In Your Eyes.” But future viewings of Long Shot may be enough to change my mind.
As the movie is based on a series of Hasbro toys just like the Transformers flicks are based on a series of Hasbro toys, it's tempting to dismiss the animated musical comedy UglyDolls as nothing but a feature-length commercial barely disguised as a film. But while this new release won't win any Oscars, a special Clio wouldn't be out of line, because as 85-minute ads go, this one is unexpectedly charming and clever, and a complete pleasure to listen to. With its protagonist a squat, relentlessly upbeat plaything named Moxy (voiced, with engaging perkiness, by Kelly Clarkson), the simple plot sends a group of plush eccentrics in search of children to love them, their journey waylaid by the plastic denizens of the Institute of Perfection – an assembly-line Stepford in which traditional beauty is prized above all else. Obviously, inevitable morals about Appreciating Our Flaws and Accepting Our Differences and such are all on the docket, as are a bunch of instantly forgettable bubble-gum-pop songs. Yet the morals are sturdy and welcome and delivered in offhandedly witty ways. The songs, meanwhile, may be drippy, but I'd sit through worse for the chance to hear a Kelly Clarkson/Janelle Monáe duet, to say nothing of a score offering equal vocal opportunities for Nick Jonas, Blake Shelton, Charli XCX, and Pitbull.
And who would've thought that the film would be as funny as it is? Despite their theoretically “ugly” countenances, our heroes, like their three-dimensional Hasbro counterparts, are disappointingly drab in appearance, and the same could be said for director Kelly Asbury's visuals; it's oftentimes like watching a Lego movie in which animators forgot to animate half the background action. Yet the jokes are solid. There are first-rate, fast-paced gags involving the toys' training prep for life with a pint-sized owner – Avoid the spilled cereal! Stay out of the washing machine! – and loads of sharp, character-based retorts. (Describing Jonas' singing, dancing drill sergeant Lou, an underling aptly says, “That man can entertain and emotionally devastate like no one else.”) And while it's not uncommon to see a family comedy employ punchlines that sail over the heads of young children, it's awfully rare to see one with punchlines that'll sail over the heads of many adults, with the droll references here including, but hardly limited to, Charles Dickens, Andy Warhol, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”, da Vinci's Vitruvian Man, and that old Coppertone ad with that puppy exposing that toddler's fanny. Every time UglyDolls threatened to become a snooze, it immediately popped back to life with a big laugh or shiver-inducing vocal note or deliriously random shout-out, and by its finale, I was forced to admit I was having a ball. Even the typically annoying direct addresses to the camera are a hoot. “You won't believe what happened next!” an excitable bird exclaims. “Or … maybe you will. I don't even know you.”
Nothing, and I mean nothing, about the horror thriller The Intruder should work. Not the storyline, in which Dennis Quaid's widowed homeowner sells his family estate to Michael Ealy's and Meagan Good's young marrieds and promptly, murderously, decides to take it back. Not the characters, with everyone on-screen acting either criminally stupid or bug-eyed loco. Not the direction, with Deon Taylor's previous two films, Traffik and Meet the Blacks, among the absolute worst of the past five years. Not the heavy-handed political subtext, with Black lives upended by the actions of a white, middle-aged gun nut in a red baseball cap who just wants to make (his portion of) America great again. And not the unhinged-psychopath performance of Quaid, who hasn't been truly interesting on-screen, and certainly not in a leading role, since before Obama took office. Astoundingly, though, The Intruder frequently works like gangbusters, albeit with an enormous caveat: While the film isn't the least bit scary (or, really, the least bit good), you can still routinely laugh with it – or rather, at it – and find your time unexpectedly well-spent. I can't fathom why this movie wasn't marketed as a comedy. It's loads funnier than Meet the Blacks.
I giggled when we first learned that Ealy's Scott worked in advertising and Good's Annie wrote for “women's magazines,” because, you know, of course. I giggled when their introduction to Quaid's Charlie involved witnessing him shoot a deer in the the head with a rifle – after he already killed it – and the pair still decided to join him for a tour of their prospective new home. I giggled at the PG-13 sex in the kitchen, with Charlie acting as unnoticed voyeur. I giggled when, after several scenes of Charlie showing up unexpectedly and all but rolling his eyes with demented fervor, Annie invited him to Thanksgiving dinner. I giggled when, even after Scott figured out the man's craziness, Annie kept inviting Charlie in over and over, thinking nothing of splitting a pizza with him with her husband in the hospital. I giggled at the revelation of Charlie's new living quarters, and at the riotous overindulgence of Daniel Pearl's score, and at the shoes so unceremoniously dropped as the movie mercifully reached its end. And I giggled like hell whenever Quaid did anything – particularly when he started doing it in the manner of Jack Nicholson in The Shining, at one point busting through a door like he was about to bellow “He-e-e-ere's Johnny!”, and at another point screaming “Annie! ANNIE-E-E!!!” just like Jack screamed “Danny! DANNY-Y-Y!!!” in the hedge maze. (Screenwriter David Lowery also blatantly, embarrassingly references A Streetcar Named Desire when Quaid carries an unconscious Good in his arms and says to her, honest to God, “We've had this date with each other from the beginning.”) The Intruder is almost inarguably terrible. But it's terrible in surprisingly engrossing ways, and I could've watched Quaid grin with comically demented Kabuki glee, and lose his shit in spectacular fashion, for far longer than the movie's 100 minutes. The actor will be back to letting a canine lick his face in A Dog's Journey in a week-and-a-half's time. Enjoy the break while it lasts.