Prove your humanity

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A young woman seeks to upend the political status quo. She looks at the lazy men in charge, and knows she can do better. We know she’s the real deal because we see earnest footage of her as an idealistic kid. We also see she has affection for a scruffy guy with a beard, to the point where we also suspect she could do better, but thankfully he learns how to properly groom himself before the movie is over. This describes both Long Shot and Knock Down the House, two films that open this week. In important ways, they are quite different: one is a fictional romantic comedy, while the other is a documentary. But both films try to say something about our current political moment, and the success of one ultimately undermines the other.

Directed by Rachel Lears, Knock Down the House is ostensibly about four women who ran primaries in safe Democratic Congressional seats during last year’s midterm election. Really, though, the film is the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez show: she is the only one who won her primary, for one thing, and she is more engaging than her counterparts. Before Ocasio-Cortez was better known as AOC – and a political force to be reckoned with – the film follows her as she develops her footing, going from an underdog to a serious challenger. She is funny, self-depreciating, and personable. Skeptics may argue this documentary is pure hagiography, but she clearly rose to the occasion provided her by Brand New Congress, a group looking for more progressive voices.

Long Shot tries to be two films at once. On one hand, it has the feel-good trappings of a Notting Hill-style comedy. Charlize Theron plays Charlotte Field, the glamorous Secretary of State who is spoiling for a run at the White House. Seth Rogen plays Fred Flarsky, an angry lefty journalist (think The Intercept by way of Chapo Trap House) who finds his way into Field’s inner circle. They knew each other way back when, and she decides to hire him as her speechwriter. The pair hit it off – at first in secret, then in public – and that story dovetails with her big presidential announcement. There is also an admittedly hilarious protracted gag about bodily fluids.

Both films are overt reactions to the most recent presidential election. Long Shot is an attempt as bipartisanship: Field never says what party she belongs to – although it’s pretty clear which one – and there is an important subplot where Fred learns to tolerate people to his right, who is everyone (Bob Odenkirk plays the film’s vacuous President, and the film never addresses how Fred feels about working in his administration). Indeed, the way they write around Fred’s trust of Charlotte is a plot convenience, and what’s more, we don’t have to see why Charlotte falls for him because the script by Dan Sterling and Liz Hannah focuses on the “aw shucks” disbelief that an ordinary man feels when an extraordinary woman shows an interest in him.

Knock Down the House is less about bipartisanship, or even ambition. The film is borne out of a sense of outrage that our leaders are failing ordinary people. According to the film, AOC did not even think about becoming a Congresswoman; instead, she was nominated for the position by her brother. The film also keeps things from her point of view. When we see her partner Riley Roberts, he is always in the background (in fact, he barely says anything). Both AOC and Theron’s character become popular by saying things the Establishment does not want to hear, and while Long Shot creates dramatic stakes, including a strange sequence where she solves a diplomatic crisis while rolling on Molly, there is a “truth to power” sense to AOC’s indignation.

Now I know what you’re thinking: maybe I’m being too hard on Long Shot, since it’s fictional and stars Apatow-adjacent comedians. It’s more of a romantic comedy than a political movie. Rogen and Theron has off-kilter chemistry, and the film is bursting with semi-improvised one-liners that are common to Rogen’s work (Jonathon Levine directed the film, who previously worked with Rogen in the underrated 50/50). What is frustrating about Long Shot is how it tries to have its cake and it eat, too: politics are significant plot point, and yet some ads avoid mentioning that part of the story altogether. Most of its comedy is apolitical, to the point where it could have been about a CEO and a business reporter, so the film suffers halfhearted attempts at finding common ground only lead to a major identity crisis.

Long Shot and Knock Down the House were directed by a man and woman, respectively, and it shows. What undermines Long Shot is that it’s almost entirely from Fred’s point of view, with Charlotte as the “straight” comedian. This kind of double reversal is more like a slight of hand: the film includes some feminist ideas – Charlotte always has agency and thinks for herself – but still has the same DNA as dated, lovable loser romcoms like Knocked Up. Knock Down the House is relatively defiant: AOC and her fellow incumbent challengers bank on the strength of their ideas, not a sense they’re owed anything. If both films strive to be crowd-pleasers, only one trusts the audience enough to achieve that goal in a satisfying way.