You’ve got to hand it to Seth Rogen. Several years ago, he caught some flak for appearing with Katherine Heigl in the rom-com Knocked Up. The film became something of a poster child for the “schlubby guy is paired with beautiful woman” trope. So now, years later, he’s doubling down by starring in a romantic comedy with none other than Charlize Freaking Theron.
But here’s the thing, the pairing works, partly because they lean into the unlikeliness of the romance, partly because the film is feminist in many other ways, and partly because Theron and Rogen have charm and chemistry to burn.
It’s been a while since we’ve had an old-fashioned rom-com like this, albeit one that makes several nods to current events. Rogen plays Fred Flarsky, a journalist with perhaps too much personal integrity for his own good. When a Rupert Murdoch-like figure buys the indie newspaper Fred works for, he quits. He drowns his sorrows in the company of his best friend Lance (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), a successful tech entrepreneur, who takes him to a swanky party. There, Fred locks eyes with Secretary of State Charlotte Field (Theron). Turns out, she babysat for him when he was a kid—and he’s been crushing on her since puberty. He’s shocked when she actually remembers him.
Charlotte is about to launch a presidential bid and, while voters find her polished and competent, they don’t find her particularly funny or relatable. (They also disapprove of her hella awkward wave.) Charlotte decides to bring on Fred to help humanize her speeches, much to the mortification of her buttoned-down personal assistant, Maggie (June Diane Raphael), who disapproves of Fred’s slovenly, stoner ways.
The supporting cast might be the secret MVPs of this film, and Raphael is a particular revelation as Maggie, who hates Fred and isn’t shy about letting him know it. (With their quick, cutting banter, the two of them almost have their own mini rom-com happening on the sidelines.) Jackson, who was so charming in Ingrid Goes West, again proves that he’s a sneaky scene stealer. His Lance is great ally for his pal Fred who also teaches Fred a great lesson about the limits of his own self-righteousness. Bob Odenkirk as the bumbling President Chambers, a former TV actor who wants to make the transition from TV to the White House to film, is predictably funny, as is Alexander Skarsgård as the dreamy Canadian Prime Minister who is actually a bit of a twit.
The film’s politics are not quite as sophisticated as I might’ve hoped (it has nothing on the gold standard political love story, The American President), but they get the job done. Basically, Charlotte has to keep compromising her values to win President Chambers’ endorsement. She argues for the ends (her election) justifying the means. Fred is all about never compromising. It echoes a debate we’ve seen over and over again on Twitter and elsewhere.
One of my favorite ongoing gags involves periodic cut-ins to a Fox News-like morning show, where a female anchor, a constipated smile frozen on her face, enables the sexist banter of her male cohosts. (This bit resolves in a satisfying way.) Another great bit has Charlotte negotiating a hostage release from the Situation Room, while high on molly.
But as I said, none of this would work if Rogen and Theron weren’t so winning and if Fred and Charlotte didn’t seem to genuinely like each other so much. They very accurately recreate the giddy early stages of a relationship where all you want to do is hang out, have sex, and vibe off each other. Sure, Charlotte might be a Duchess Catherine type and Fred might be a Danny DeVito (to use one of the film’s analogies). But when it works, it works.