Dramatization of real-life scandal could be better

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Megyn Kelly, Gretchen Carlson and Kayla Pospisil (Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie, from left) share an elevator ride in Bombshell. (Lionsgate)

By Richard Ades

Bombshell isn’t a complete dud, but neither is it as effective as it could be. Perhaps that’s because it spreads too little explosive power over too wide an area.

The flick is designed as an expose of Fox News and particularly of the sexual-harassment charges that in 2016 brought down chairman and CEO Roger Ailes. On the way there, however, it stops to explain such things as how Fox and President Donald J. Trump became joined at the hip, and why the network’s women journalists tend to be pretty blondes in short skirts.

It also attempts to tell a tale of feminist empowerment, but its ability to inspire is stymied by the fact that most of the female characters display more loyalty to their careers than to each other. Further weakening the message is the film’s tone, which wanders haphazardly between drama and spoofery.

Maybe director Jay Roach (Meet the Parents, Meet the Fockers) was not the right person to helm this ambitious take on a real-life scandal. Or maybe Charles Randolph was not the right person to write it, even though he co-wrote a much better historical expose, 2015’s The Big Short.

But the cast, at least, is perfect.

Particularly laudable is Charlize Theron’s impersonation of Megyn Kelly, whose questioning of Trump’s misogynistic tendencies during a 2015 presidential debate made her the target of his unquenchable fury. Kelly serves as the story’s main narrator, which is a mixed blessing.

As a prominent Fox talent, she is well-suited to explaining the company’s power structure, including the fact that Ailes ultimately answers to owner Rupert Murdoch and his sons. But, like her real-life counterpart, Theron’s Kelly is difficult to like. When the scandal begins unfolding, she reacts as the lawyer she is, refusing to get involved until she’s had a chance to weigh the evidence—and the risk to herself.

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Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) takes a walk with her boss, Roger Ailes (John Lithgow). (Photo by Hilary B Gayle)

More relatable is fellow newswoman Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), who is fired after doing such un-Fox-like things as appearing on air without makeup and calling for assault weapons to be banned. She subsequently sues Ailes for sexual harassment and surprised to find that none of his other victims is eager to follow her lead.

Those other victims include Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), an ambitious producer and self-described “evangelical millennial” who receives a first-hand lesson in Ailes’s tendency to hide sexual innuendo under a demand that she prove her “loyalty.” (Kayla, one of the story’s few fictional characters, is said to be based on several former Fox employees.)

The decrepit Ailes himself is played by a barely recognizable John Lithgow as an executive who has been manipulating women for so long that he seems genuinely surprised when his behavior becomes a legal matter.

Bombshell reveals several interesting historical tidbits, including the antipathy that Fox’s bigwigs originally held for the upstart Trump. It also includes a few laughs, though they don’t always work to the film’s benefit.

When Kayla falls into bed with co-worker Jess Carr (SNL’s Kate McKinnon), their relationship is defined by light banter that makes no attempt to explain why the evangelical Kayla has so little trouble squaring lesbian sex with her religious beliefs.

Other laughs are engendered by the appearance of stand-ins for rascally celebrities such as Rudy Giuliani (Richard Kind) and Geraldo Rivera (Tony Plana). In such cases, the movie’s uncanny impersonations undermine the story by shoving it unceremoniously into spoof territory.

Bombshell benefits from a strong cast and a subject that is both timely and fascinating. If it hadn’t been weakened by so-so execution, it might have lived up to its name.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Bombshell (rated R) opens Dec. 20 at theaters nationwide.

Presidential rom-com mixes satire with sex and drug jokes

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Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen) helps Secretary of State Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron) loosen up in a scene from Long Shot.

By Richard Ades

The two main criteria for judging a romantic comedy are, naturally: (1) Is it romantic? And (2) is it funny?

In the case of Long Shot, the answer to both questions is “sometimes.”

Directed by Jonathan Levine (Snatched), the rom-com concocts a potentially intriguing matchup. On the one side is Secretary of State Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron), who begins planning a presidential run after learning the current commander-in-chief (Bob Odenkirk) won’t seek a second term. On the other side is Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen), a liberal journalist who leaves his job when his publication is sold to a conservative media conglomerate. When the two meet at a party and Charlotte realizes they were childhood neighbors, she impulsively hires Fred as a speechwriter.

On the surface, the glamorous, powerful Charlotte and the scruffy, laid-back Fred are a typical rom-com odd couple. Beneath the surface, however, there’s an actual connection. Years ago, 13-year-old Fred secretly had a crush on 16-year-old Charlotte, who served as his babysitter when she wasn’t running to be their school’s student-body president.

Now that they’ve been thrown together as adults, it’s obvious that Fred still has a crush on Charlotte, but he’s too aware of the difference in their positions to let on. Instead, he starts plying her for information about herself, explaining that a speechwriter needs to know his subject. Apparently charmed by his interest, Charlotte is happy to oblige. Even if you’re not a rom-com fan, you’ll have no trouble figuring out where this is headed.

Is Charlotte and Fred’s roundabout courtship romantic? Well, it may be for some, but not for me. It just seems too contrived and predictable, especially with sappy music telegraphing every development.

Well, is the film at least funny? Parts of it are, especially the early slapstick scenes featured in the commercials. Whether later scenes tickle your funny bone depends on your affinity for R-rated gags involving sex and drugs. They may produce a few reflexive chuckles, but they’re not nearly as satisfying as humor that grows organically out of characters and situations.

Appropriately for a film coming out in 2019, Long Shot also takes a stab at political satire, though its efforts are pretty tame compared to what’s aired on late-night TV. Like Donald Trump, Odenkirk’s President Chambers earned his fame on television (as an actor rather than a reality star). But unlike Trump, he has no political ambition and is simply using the presidency as a steppingstone to his actual career goal of breaking into the movies.

Screenwriters Dan Sterling and Liz Hannah likewise take aim at Trump’s favorite show, Fox & Friends, with a clone that lambastes liberals and feminists and is part of a network run by the Stephen Bannon-like Parker Wembley (Andy Serkis). To make sure the flick doesn’t alienate conservative viewers too much, though, their script aims other barbs at the liberal Fred, who is shamed for not knowing that his black best friend (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) is a Republican—a Republican whose political philosophy is along the lines of “Believe in yourself.” Edgy!

Perhaps the movie makes the strongest political statements about the special challenges faced by a woman like Charlotte who’s trying to break through the ultimate glass ceiling. But it may go too far when it has Fred apologize for not realizing that such challenges sometimes force her to sacrifice her ideals. That’s probably not a message that real-life women candidates would appreciate.

Long Shot does benefit from two likable star turns. Theron adds enough humanity to the regal Charlotte to prevent her from becoming an ice queen, while Rogen plays the chemically adventurous Fred as an extension of his usual persona. It’s just too bad the script didn’t find more interesting ways for these two likable people to interact.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Long Shot (rated R) opened May 3 at theaters nationwide.