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The Schlubby Guy Gets the Girl, Again

From ‘Long Shot’ to ‘Knocked Up’ to ‘High Fidelity,’ Hollywood has made a fortune turning losers into lover men. But the new Seth Rogen–Charlize Theron movie is a little more thoughtful about the trope than some of its predecessors.

Lionsgate/Ringer illustration

“Oh, you’re prettier than I am!” Seth Rogen blurts out, pants off, white socks still on, having inexplicably charmed Katherine Heigl into bed. He can’t believe it. She can’t believe it. We can’t believe it. They make love, awkwardly; the scandalized audience makes amused and cringe-y faces, viscerally.

Heigl regrets it over breakfast the next morning, as her bed-headed super-loser paramour drones on about the healing powers of weed and his irrational hatred of Lost star Matthew Fox and the website Rogen’s starting whose pitch begins, “Let’s say you love Meg Ryan. Let’s say you like her so much you wanna know every movie where she shows her tits.” The very notion of these two people falling in love is ludicrous to the point of offensive; “Wow, that was fuckin’ brutal,” he mutters to himself after she beats a horrified retreat.

Crisis averted. Except the movie, of course, is called Knocked Up, and Heigl’s character is, and over the course of a sweetly madcap two-plus hours (!), Rogen’s character will shape up and read a few pregnancy books and slowly prove himself Worthy. As will the movie, which was released in 2007, banked more than $200 million worldwide, and further bolstered writer-director Judd Apatow’s schlub-comedy empire.

Knocked Up is perhaps the signature rom-com of the 2000s precisely because the com derives mostly from the stupendous unlikelihood of the rom. Pairing a goddess with a doofy, unworthy mortal is not, of course, Hollywood’s most revolutionary concept: Ask Woody Allen, or, better yet, don’t. But something about Seth Rogen in the doofy, unworthy mortal role resonated, and still does, because he just made another “Oh, you’re prettier than I am!” movie, and this one’s even better.

Long Shot, out in wide release Friday and directed by Jonathan Levine, stars Rogen (as a slovenly and volcanic Brooklyn journalist with a breathtaking array of terrible windbreakers and cargo pants) opposite Charlize Theron (as, literally, the ungodly glamorous Secretary of State). They fall in love. This is, per the movie’s title, spectacularly unlikely. The first thing I need to tell you is that I have watched Theron’s spit-take in the trailer above at least 200 times. The second thing is that this might be the most nuanced and perceptive “zero bags a 10” movie we’re ever gonna get, and also, if you’re into that sort of thing, the funniest and most romantic.

There is much fraught personal history to deal with here, and not just Rogen’s. Recall (or better yet, don’t) that one of Theron’s early breaks came in the very minor 1998 Woody Allen film Celebrity, in which her character is literally named Supermodel, and her role is to stupify Kenneth Branagh, in the hapless Woody-surrogate lead role, into immediate submission. Their first conversation starts as follows:

Charlize: “Hey. Nice car.”

Kenneth: “Duh, ah, than—I, would y—uh, wouldyawannadriveit?

Theron is hardly less intimidating in Long Shot as Charlotte Field, a workaholic über-politician with an environmentalist bent and legit presidential aspirations, if only she can convince all the hapless dudes around her to take her seriously. We learn that her poll numbers are fabulous, with, basically, two caveats: She needs a man, and she needs a better sense of humor. Enter Rogen as Fred Flarsky, whose name says everything that his garish windbreakers do not. (Flarsky used to be the title of the movie.) True, he has recently disgraced himself in myriad ways, including in front of both Charlotte and Boyz II Men. But he is also, however improbably, the perfect candidate to help this gorgeous and accomplished woman become an actual human.

That’s the retrograde rom-com template, anyway, and mercifully, that’s not quite what happens. Long Shot is delightful in ways that resist all subtext. The pleasing sandpaper burr of Rogen’s voice as he rants and raves and fitfully evolves, the way Theron is finally free to cackle and mug and let loose in an expertly underplayed sort of way, hardening and softening in precise proportion: She has always been way funnier than you think, and indeed usually funnier than all the jokers forever orbiting her. June Diane Raphael, as Charlotte’s beleaguered chief of staff, steals every scene she’s in as politely as possible, even the one with the spit-take. This is an ideal raucous, full-theater experience, tailor-made Avengers: Endgame counterprogramming, complete with a climactic gross-out gag that also proves to be quite, y’know, heartwarming. The movie invites you not to think too hard, and more importantly rewards you for it.

But Knocked Up also seemed frivolous at first blush—for most of the boys, anyway—only to take on disquieting new dimensions after Heigl spoke up, criticizing her own blockbuster film’s gender politics in indelicate but not unreasonable terms, and paying the price for it. That movie did not quite succeed in humanizing her character, and the messy aftermath wound up partially dehumanizing the actress herself. Long Shot is a hoot, in the parlance, and didn’t particularly need to be anything other than a hoot. But it’s also got redemption on its mind, and a slyly subversive read on who or what might need to be redeemed.

The Schlub-Goddess dichotomy, in rom-coms and other coms alike, is not of course limited to this medium or this century. “Why are fat sitcom husbands paired with great-looking wives?” Slate wondered in 2005, marveling at the dubious animal magnetism of such doofs as Kevin James, Donal Logue, and Jim Belushi, and tracing that opposites-attract absurdity all the way back to the imbalanced marriages that powered major-network classics from Family Ties to The Bob Newhart Show. Nobody on TV is slumming harder than Marge Simpson, even now.

One can argue, meanwhile, whether Adam Sandler, from his initial halcyon ’90s run to unfeasibly far beyond, really had enough swag to charm the likes of Drew Barrymore, or Bridgette Wilson, or Fairuza Balk, or Paz Vega, or, in the even more vexing modern Netflix era, Julia Jones or Jennifer Hudson. But Judd Apatow’s films, from his 2005 directorial debut The 40-Year-Old Virgin forward, sent the angel-dweeb paradox into overdrive. (With apologies to Steve Carell, only in Hollywood is he even allowed within 1,000 feet of Catherine Keener.) In 2008 came Forgetting Sarah Marshall, coproduced by Apatow, directed by Nicholas Stoller, and written by and starring Jason Segel as a lumbering mope who starts off with Kristen Bell and winds up with Mila Kunis in a movie whose most memorable sight gag is his own unsightly naked body.

But Knocked Up stood alone in magnifying the love-interest imbalance: From the poster image on down, it was billed as Rogen’s movie in ways that demeaned him (“What if this guy got you pregnant?” that poster screamed) and Heigl alike. His character is a knucklehead, sure, but her character’s too stuck up to acknowledge that he’s also a total catch. More than half a year after the movie’s release, in a January 2008 Vanity Fair cover story, Heigl put it plainly, if impolitely:

“It was a little sexist,” she says. “It paints the women as shrews, as humorless and uptight, and it paints the men as lovable, goofy, fun-loving guys. It exaggerated the characters, and I had a hard time with it, on some days. I’m playing such a bitch; why is she being such a killjoy? Why is this how you’re portraying women? Ninety-eight percent of the time it was an amazing experience, but it was hard for me to love the movie.”

The sniping amid Heigl, Rogen, and Apatow that followed did not cover anyone in glory—some of it played out, alas, on The Howard Stern Show—but there’s no question who got the worst of it. “Ms. Heigl was quickly branded a traitor,” The New York Times recalled in a 2010 piece chronicling her various PR struggles in the aftermath. “In a Hollywood twist, her publicist fired her.”

But Heigl was hardly the only one making the point. David Denby, in a 2007 New Yorker piece tracing Knocked Up’s troubled lineage, described the genre as pairing “the slovenly hipster and the female straight arrow” in a “slacker-striver romance,” drawing a line from John Cusack in 2000’s High Fidelity (“How could this have happened, you ask?” he whispers directly to the camera, in bed beside a slumbering Lisa Bonet) all the way back to Frank Capra and, hell, Shakespeare. The new wave of romantic comedies lighting up Netflix—and, in the occasional miraculous instance of Crazy Rich Asians or The Big Sick, the actual multiplex—level the playing field and don’t much dwell on the question of what She sees in Him. But Rogen and Theron clowning around on a movie poster with the tagline “Unlikely But Not Impossible” felt like an unwelcome throwback. He, at least, had made that movie before.

It’s less what Long Shot does to avoid the slacker-striver pitfall than what it doesn’t do. After the early polling scene makes it clear that Charlotte is perceived as not being very funny, your average raucous theater audience is primed for several scenes of her making terrible jokes and cringing up the joint to the point where Flarsky’s job is to give her an actual personality. She inspires him to buy an actual suit; he inspires her to get a life. That’s the deal. That’s having it all. That’s love.

But Theron—witty and spry even in far more sour affairs like 2011’s Young Adult or 2018’s Tully—makes it clear that she hasn’t had time to watch Game of Thrones because she’s just too fuckin’ busy to watch it. Her charisma with Rogen is genuine, goofy, and sweet, and if only for two seconds, he looks good enough in a suit that the improbability of their attraction ceases to be the movie’s driving force. She clearly doesn’t need to be supported. The issue is whether he can learn to be supportive anyway.

What emerges as Long Shot’s driving force is, OK, a little gross, but the question—even in a very specific and disquieting moment when Rogen’s beard is, uh, befouled—is whether her mild and justifiable embarrassment over him can be overcome by his genuine and even more justifiable reverence for her. The movie’s answer will not surprise you. But the delicate and thoughtful way it frames the question, for once, just might.