THE STORY – A Democratic political consultant helps a retired Marine colonel run for mayor in a small Wisconsin town.
THE CAST – Steve Carell, Chris Cooper, Mackenzie Davis, Topher Grace, Natasha Lyonne & Rose Byrne
THE TEAM – Jon Stewart (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 102 Minutes
By Dan Bayer
Jon Stewart hosted “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central from 1999 to 2015, and grew a huge fanbase because of the way he spoke truth to the power of both politicians and the news media. Just before leaving he made the perfectly fine film “Rosewater”, about a journalist falsely imprisoned in Iran and brutally interrogated and tortured. His second film, “Irresistible”, is a return to the satirical humor of his time on “The Daily Show” in more ways than one. All the hallmarks of Stewart’s political humor are present, and they’re virtually unchanged since 2015. But the world has changed drastically since then, and Stewart’s brand of both-sides-ism just doesn’t play.
This isn’t to say that Stewart isn’t funny anymore. On the contrary, he is still very capable of writing some brilliantly biting lines, and “Irresistible” certainly has its fair share. The fake political ads and PAC names that dot the landscape of the film are perfect little morsels of satire, even if they aren’t particularly fresh. However, the rest of the story is nowhere near that level. The plot revolves around political consultant Gary Zimmer (Steve Carell), taking a sojourn in Deerlaken, Wisconsin to run the mayoral campaign of retired Marine colonel Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper). Hastings was brought to Zimmer’s attention via a YouTube video of him standing up for the rights of the town’s undocumented workers in a town council meeting. Zimmer believes that the Colonel is the key to bringing rural voters back to the Democratic Party, and the Republican Party eventually brings in Zimmer’s nemesis, Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne), to stop him.
This seems like a situation rich with opportunities for Stewart to skewer the American political system. Instead, he mostly goes for easy jokes about rural America, like Gary’s tendency to practically have an orgasm while eating the home-baked pastries from the local coffee place, and the constant dial-up modem tones in the campaign’s office. Unlike the more direct political bits of satire, these other bits aren’t particularly funny. The constant revelations that the people of Deerlaken are actually much smarter than either Gary or Faith believe them to be, plays as condescending to the audience, and Gary’s statements about how big-city liberals like him don’t know how to talk to the simple folks of the heartland are even worse.
America has much deeper problems than people on one side of the aisle not knowing how to talk to people on the other side, and the stakes in the country at the moment involve massive corruption, policemen mowing down peaceful protesters, and foreign election interference, not to mention the recent development of hundreds of thousands of people dying from a pandemic that the current administration has willfully ignored and underplayed. In this climate, “Irresistible” plays like one of those race relations fantasies in which a massive systemic problem can be solved if only both sides could just listen to one another. Or, at least it does until a late storytelling twist comes along that tries to convince us that the film was actually about something else entirely. It makes so little sense that it’s almost admirable.
The sad thing is, the cast could have really sparked if Stewart’s script had been sharper. Gary is a role tailor-made for Steve Carell’s talents, although he ends up mostly just mugging. Rose Byrne nails all the film’s best lines as the deliciously evil Faith, but the role is so small that it’s practically non-existent. Chris Cooper is perfectly cast as Colonel Hastings, bringing just the right amount of soft-spoken reticence to the part. Mackenzie Davis provides moments of perfectly pitched spunk that liven up the dreary back half.
All of these performances though are in service of a film that feels badly out of date, even to the choir it preaching to who will go out of their way to see it. Stewart is onto something about the amount of money at play in the American political machine, and what that means for both the country as a whole and “ordinary Americans” (a loaded phrase if ever there was one, especially in a film that has not even one non-white lead). But his film feels like it’s at least two years behind the times in its themes and proffered solutions to the nation’s problems. It’s somewhat charmingly naïve, but to be able to say that about a work of political commentary written and directed by Jon Stewart is a disappointment. Lord knows the material is there to make a scathing political satire out of our current moment, and if anyone could do it, it should have been Stewart. But as it turns out, “Irresistible” is anything but.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – The cast is uniformly enjoyable and the political skewering has some laugh-out-loud funny moments.
THE BAD – While it unmistakably takes place in the (more-or-less) present, its themes, most of its jokes, and messaging all feel badly out of date.
THE OSCARS – None