It’s been five years since Jon Stewart vacated his perch atop Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, but the one-time “Most Trusted Newsman in America” (even as he’d be the first to admit he wasn’t a real journalist) still has lots to say about the state of our political discourse. And those thoughts are clearly in evidence with his new directorial effort, Irresistible. However, as a vehicle to express those thoughts the film (which he also wrote) is neither as incisive as it should be nor as earnest as it wants to be, a surprisingly toothless affair from a man whose wit and wisdom are normally so effortless.Irresistible stars Steve Carrell as Democratic campaign consultant Gary Zimmer, who sees a viral video clip of retired Marine Colonel Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper) haranguing the city council in the small Wisconsin town of Deerlaken, and in true Mr. Smith Goes to Washington fashion envisions a mayoral campaign for the war hero that could offer up a Democratic victory in the traditionally Republican stronghold. Soon enough, Republican strategist and longtime rival Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne) shows up to offer her services to the other side, and suddenly a local race in a town of 5,000 has become a national story.
As with his previous directorial effort, 2014’s Rosewater, Jon Stewart is able to assemble an impressive cast (there are fun supporting turns here from familiar faces like Topher Grace, Natasha Lyonne, and MAD TV vet Will Sasso). But unlike Rosewater, which followed a single, fact-based story and was relatively contained, Irresistible feels like it’s casting too wide a net in terms of what it’s trying to do, leaving us unsure of who we’re supposed to be siding with. It sure feels like Zimmer is supposed to be our protagonist, but he doesn’t seem particularly good at his job, nor is he particularly likable. Then again, it’s not like Brewster is much better.
In the world of the movie, Zimmer was an advisor on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign while Brewster (clearly modeled on Kellyanne Conway, and playing the part to perfection) served up spin for Trump. Both admit early on that they’re pretty much paid to lie and say whatever their campaigns require while keeping a straight face. So sure, they’re both awful. And that “pox on both their houses” ethos pervades the entire thing, with the media machinery of 24 hour news also receiving its share of volleys (for anyone who’s followed Stewart for any length of time, these have long been some of his favorite targets).
The problem then is one of tone with Stewart seeming strangely unsure of where to concentrate fire and when to pull his punches. This, in turn, leaves us whipsawing between parody bits that could have fit in on The Daily Show (with current Daily cast member Desi Lydic serving up a pitch perfect Fox & Friends talking head) and folksy bits akin to Kevin Costner’s 2008 down-the-middle political comedy Swing Vote. The director’s broader point seems to be that small towns in the Rust Belt shouldn’t merely be thought of as demographics to be feted and flattered every four years — they have wisdom to offer, if people would just listen!
And sure, fair enough. There’s no question the omnipresent ecosystem of media airtime and campaign finance is deeply, desperately screwed up. On the other hand, there’s also something vaguely cloying and a little dishonest about the “Listen to rural America!” leitmotif given the way media outlets raced to sing the lament of the ignored rural white voter in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election. As a result, what could have been a biting satire at precisely the cultural moment that demands it is instead subsumed by the same kind of unfocused “both sides”-ism that made the Stewart-led “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” in 2010 such a muddled affair.
This is unfortunate given the many pieces in Irresistible that do work. As mentioned earlier, Carrell is ceaselessly charming even when the material doesn’t quite know what to do with him. His attempts to appear unassuming with the residents of Deerlaken offer up some fun “Michael Scott meets Doc Hollwyood” moments (including a would-be flirtation with Mackenzie Davis as Hastings’ daughter). Meanwhile, Cooper — playing what feels like a variation on his October Sky character from two decades ago — is the perfect vehicle to serve up Stewart’s brand of homespun hard truths.
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