Friday, May 3, 2019


The charming, feckless rom-com Long Shot stakes out territory that’s pure political fantasy. For one thing, it’s a movie about an American government that’s mostly functional, with a respected and effective Secretary of State (Charlize Theron) working for a benignly buffoonish showbiz president (Bob Odenkirk). The movie even withholds party allegiances for most of the runtime — the better to get the partisans on board? — until admitting that, yes, as you may have suspected, an administration pursuing a sweeping climate bill and antagonized by a scummy billionaire propagandist (an unrecognizable Andy Serkis) can only be Democratic. It’s all middle-of-the-road empty moderate pablum as a backdrop for a somewhat successful charm offensive, as the Secretary’s world tour doubles as a trial balloon presidential run, and reason to hire a schlubby unemployed muckraker (Seth Rogen) as speech writer. Director Jonathan Levine (The Night Before) and screenwriters Liz Hannah (The Post) and Dan Sterling (The Interview) devise sparkling, even elegant at times, throwback rom-com tropes for Theron and Rogen to enact: the Meet Cute, the bantering getting-to-know-you dialogue, the swooning pop song montage, the first kiss, the lamentable falling out, the soaring reconciliation. It’s nothing you can’t see coming — save, maybe, the supremely R-rated scandal subplot that nearly derails their relationship, and the movie’s otherwise gentle (think sleepy, sentimental Veep) tone. But the actors’ chemistry and effervescent timing (Theron’s effortless power and Rogen’s shyly emphatic stumbling are a fine pairing) with the filmmakers’ sturdy craftsmanship makes it work. The nagging doubt I have about this breezy fluff of a charmer is that in order to tell a political story in these shock doctrine times, even in a glossy high-concept big-screen rom-com mode, they push ahead like the world hasn’t changed. Its shallow interest in its own backdrop — up to and including a limp ending that skips loads of potential fallout to get to a fake rush of faux-empowerment — leaves it less than the sum of its heart. 

There are no such hurdles to the engaging new political documentary Knock Down the House. It needs no false notes or Hollywood fiction to make a feel-good story of contemporary politics. Director Rachel Lears and crew decided to follow a sampling of liberal women running for Congress in the 2018 midterms. In engaging biographical snapshots, gripping and informative — and entertaining! — fly-on-the-wall filmmaking introduces Nevada’s Amy Vilela, Missouri’s Cori Bush, and West Virginia’s Paula Jean Swearengin as they mount campaigns full of sympathetic personal motivation and heart-felt political engagement. And luckiest for the filmmakers, who happened upon a real star-making victory and make the most of it as the central plank of their storytelling here, is footage of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose run against an entrenched Democratic incumbent resulted in a surprise underdog upset, and whose charismatic, clear-eyed rhetoric creates obvious energy. In this behind-the-scenes look at campaigns in our gangrenously corrupt new Gilded Age, we see with effective immediacy the hard work of getting out the message: strategy meetings, door-knocking and hand-shaking sessions, debate prep, interviews. We see long hours, moments of doubt, and rushes of excitement. They don’t all win their races. And yet the passionate righteous anger and sensible moral clarity so clearly animating many activists and candidates is an invigorating balm for those feeling the ache of cynicism. The world only spins forward. Let’s catch up.

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