LONG SHOT

Directing: B
Acting: B+
Writing: B
Cinematography: B
Editing: B+

Long Shot is the kind of movie that can easily be criticized on many merits, in ways that I could even probably agree with, but whatever, I enjoyed it!

The greatest defense I can give it, which is perhaps equal parts fair and lame: this movie delivers on its promise, which is simply that it’s a fun, laugh-out-loud romantic comedy. It certainly has a premise that sets it apart, with Charlize Theron as Secretary of State Charlotte Field, who falls for the speech writer she hires who she also happened to babysit as a kid, Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen). Granted, it’s not new to set a romantic comedy in the upper echelons of Washington politics (see The American President (1995)), but I can’t recall any other that revolves around the most powerful woman in the world.

Now, okay, yes, it is a bit of a trope to see the stunningly beautiful woman falling for the shlubby man — hell, Seth Rogen himself already did it twelve years ago with Katherine Heigl in Knocked Up, which was about as good as this movie is. And truly, nothing in Long Shot is even remotely realistic.

But, after some introductory scenes that set all the pieces of the plot into position with pretty clumsy contrivances, Long Shot totally won me over. The movie and its audience both get its sea legs, and the charisma of its lead actors, as well as the surprising chemistry between them, conspire to sell the movie as a good time for a couple of hours.

I’ll still nitpick, of course. I like to assume that’s what you’re here for! I didn’t love the character of Maggie (June Diane Raphael), one of Charlotte Field’s key staffers, playing the part of the resentful bitch, going out of her way to sabotage the relationship. I don’t fault June Diane Raphael for taking the part — we’ve all got to pay the rent, and she does well with what bullshit she has to work with — but truly, what purpose does that serve?

And then there’s Fred Flarsky’s best friend, Lance (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), who seems little more than a pawn in an exercise in pandering “both sides-ism.” A black conservative Republican who exists to teach his white best friend about empathy and “seeing things from other people’s point of view”? Are you kidding? I’m not saying no such black people exist — but the idea that he would be best friends with a character like Fred, whose very purpose as a journalist exists to expose the seedy underbelly of Republican corruption and hypocrisy, is a bit more of a stretch.

Okay, so Long Shot is far from perfect. It works, and works well, when it focuses on the relationship between Charlotte and Fred, and how they handle the special political circumstances surrounding them. This includes Charlotte working for a president (Bob Odenkirk) who got the job with no political experience and used to be a TV star. Sound familiar? The clever twist here is that President Chambers, instead of being a reality show host, was previously the star of a TV drama on which he played . . . the president.

There are some elements of the story which, in a pre-Trump world, would have pushed the limits of believability. But, love it or hate it, we now live in a world in which a movie can show a hacked video leak involving semen on a beard does not ruin political career, and you can still think, Yeah, I can see it. (Side note: thankfully, that’s the only bit of gross-out humor involving bodily fluids in the movie.) Now, such a thing not ruining a woman’s political career? That might just still be a little too unrealistic.

But who watches these movies, particularly romantic comedies, for realism? Nobody! That these are fantasies is in their DNA, literally in the script. Long Shot does want to have things both ways in multiple contexts, from its only-occasional nods to rampant sexism in American politics while presenting an arguably sexist story arc, to its eagerness to be accessible to audiences of all political persuasions. These aren’t things that have to tear a movie down, however. I mean, why shouldn’t we all be able to enjoy this movie?

And really, that’s what makes Long Shot work — unchallenging in spite of being set in the world of American politics, it’s basically the very definition of escapism. Generally speaking, it’s escapism done well. I found my heartstrings getting tugged by it, anyway.

They’ll win you over if you let them.

They’ll win you over if you let them.

Overall: B

ISN'T IT ROMANTIC

Directing: B
Acting: B
Writing: B
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B+

Isn’t it Romantic wants you to think it’s a meta-send-up of typical romantic comedies, when really it’s a straight-up typical romantic comedy itself. In a way, it’s to its credit that it’s basically unapologetic about it; that’s kind of the point. This is a movie that has it both ways, has its comic cake and eats it romantically too, and basically gets away with it.

There’s also a strange aspect of Isn’t It Romantic, where it has some delightfully irreverent quips that made me laugh surprisingly hard, mixed fairly evenly with an almost slavish devotion to the very romantic-comedy tropes it’s ostensibly poking fun at. It all comes out to an average of general blandness in the end: the gut-busting quips barely falling short of being memorable; the tropes not quite overused enough to bog down the story completely.

To be sure, it’s fun to see an actor like Rebel Wilson as a leading lady, and kind of a kick to see the likes of her learning her lesson about shallowness when she initially pursues a relationship with the gorgeous Liam Hemsworth as opposed to everyman Adam Devine.

Wilson’s character, Natalie, gets mugged on the New York City subway and knocks herself in her attempt to run away. When she wakes up, after having spent most of the work day complaining to her assistant (Betty Gilpin) about how much she hates romantic comedies, she now finds herself in the middle of one. She figures out along the way that she must play the part of a romantic comedy leading lady, right down to her apartment suddenly becoming posh and huge, and being romantically pursued by a beautiful billionaire.

Before Isn’t It Romantic plunges Natalie into this fantasy universe, we are introduced to her living in her crappy Manhattan apartment, with a borderline mangy dog that won’t obey commands, and working in a dingy office as an architect with disrespectful colleagues. Natalie’s “real world” is just as much a part of the fantasy as the movie we’re watching, full of background and back story details that are all just as contrived as any romantic comedy.

The slight bummer of Isn’t It Romantic is its lost potential, and how, when it comes down to it, several of the very romantic comedies referenced by this three-writer script come to mind as definitively superior films to this one. Great romantic comedies are hard to come by, but this one doesn’t try all that hard to be one of them. It thumbs its nose at them with a wink, while riding on their coattails.

The players are all pleasant enough, at least, even if a lot of the scenes come across as a tad under-rehearsed. One thing this movie very much has in its favor is how brief it is — historically, a movie that clocks in at under ninety minutes is a bad sign, and this one is 88. For a movie like this, though, that turns out to be perfect, as far too many romantic comedies drag the story on for two hours and then some, with the humor spread thin as a result.

Isn’t It Romantic has its fun right out of the gate, with an opening scene featuring Jennifer Saunders as Natalie’s mom, who gets one of the funniest lines in the movie. It was apparently inevitable, though, with this movie following a by-the-numbers story arc, for it to sag a bit in the middle. The quips and gags start to dry up; there’s a slight bit of a slog; and then there’s a delightful song and dance number in a karaoke bar.

This movie isn’t quite revolutionary, but it works on its own terms. I just wish its terms aimed a little bit higher.

It’s not as hard to figure out as Natalie thinks it is.

It’s not as hard to figure out as Natalie thinks it is.

Overall: B

HOME AGAIN

Directing: B-
Acting: B+
Writing: C
Cinematography: B
Editing: B

Home Again had a unique effect on me. I can't think of any other movie that started out inadvertently creeping me out and ended by winning me over with its objectively contrived charms. I can't even think of anyone I would recommend this movie to, at least not fairly. If I wanted to jump right into sweeping generalizations, I'd say that superficial and/or easily entertained middle-aged women would love it. Okay maybe also superficial and/or easily entertained middle-aged gay men.

Everyone else? Not so much. Smug intellectuals and anyone who fancies themselves a movie connoisseur would revel in tearing this movie apart. This movie isn't for them anyway.

Home Again has much in common with Nancy Meyers movies like Something's Gotta Give (2003) and It's Complicated (2009) -- and for good reason: it's written and directed by Meyers's own daughter, Hallie Meyers-Shyer, practically as an homage. I'll give her this much credit: Meyers may be well-known for placing characters in lavishly decorated homes that seem far more expensive than they could possibly afford, but Meyers-Shyer actually lends the impeccable home some real plausibility. Reese Witherspoon's Alice Kinney lives in a gorgeous home left to her by her late dad who was a famous film director. And after all, Meyers-Shyer knows from having a famous film director parent.

The plausibility of the premise is another story. Alice, on her fortieth birthday, meets a blandly handsome twenty-something, Harry (Pico Alexander), at a bar, and takes both him and his two friends home. Harry sleeps in her bed after getting sick before they can consummate a would-be one-night stand, and his friends pass out on living room couches. Before she knows it, Alice's formerly famous actor mother (Candice Bergen, given not near enough to do) is suggesting she allow these "struggling artist" types who are trying to get a movie made to stay a few nights in her guest house.

Harry is a director, and his friends are writer George (Jon Rudnitsky) and actor Teddy (Nat Wolff). Together they form this one-dimensional trio of young Stepford Men whose main quality is that they all embody what every adoring old lady imagines their grandson to be, which is to say, flawlessly wholesome. These guys are always just barely off from how normal humans interact with each other, another writer could really take this into another direction and reveal them to be pod people. Honestly, I don't think Hallie Meyers-Shyer really knows what it's like to be young and trying to make it as a filmmaker in L.A. These kids get all the luck, encounter no grime or starvation, and somehow successfully move in on what in L.A. qualifies as a upper-middle-class family. Anywhere else, Alice would simply be rich.

Somehow, though, even in L.A., Alice has no entitlement complex, and neither do these three young men. That seems left up to the "socialite" played magnificently by Lake Bell, who briefly employs Alice as the fledgling interior designer she's attempting to reinvent herself as.

And that's the thing about Home Again, really: the performances. The material is far too trite for any of it to be exactly Oscar-worthy, and yet all of the seasoned players elevate the material. Meyers-Shyer's writing has serious room for improvement, but Reese Witherspoon hasn't met a single line of dialogue she can't make work. It doesn't take long to start rooting for Alice, even though her problems are so benign. Everyone in this movie is so relentlessly pleasant, not even Michael Sheen as the separated husband can manage to be unlikable. Alice has two young daughters who are, of course, both precocious and adorable.

There are no shitbags in this universe! In Los Angeles. That alone should disqualify the whole movie. But, as the story went on, I found myself won over by this objectively stupid movie, because -- well, that's what well-executed fantasies do. Home Again doesn't present itself as a fantasy, which is one of its many problems. It also has three Millennial men so "decent" they come off as anachronistic. It's like members of the Cleaver family from Leave It to Beaver time traveled to present day but somehow just didn't notice. Although, okay, Harry Cleaver does have sex with a forty-year-old woman. Leave it to someone in the Meyers family to make even that come across as wholesome.

Not that it can't be, mind you. It's just that in the Meyers world, there are no truly deep character flaws -- only minor mistakes the world's exclusively good people quickly learn from. Honestly, nothing about this movie is sensible, except for the idea that a woman can date a younger man and not be judged for it. It's disconcerting to see such a ridiculous story carried by winning performances.

Reese Witherspoon and Pico Alexander make an attractive inter-generational sandwich.

Reese Witherspoon and Pico Alexander make an attractive inter-generational sandwich.

Overall: B-