This Is Why Jon Stewart’s Been MIA for the Last Four Years?
The former “Daily Show” host’s sophomore effort behind the camera sees Steve Carell star as a top Dem political strategist who tries to win back the heartland. It falls far short.
Irresistible concludes with a mid-credits interview between writer/director Jon Stewart and Trevor Potter, former chairman of the Federal Election Commission and current president of the Campaign Legal Center. In their very brief exchange, Potter lays out the institutional problems that not only allow for campaign-finance malfeasance, but stymie any legislative or legal attempts to reform it. It’s a concise articulation of a fundamental failing of our election system—and one designed to validate the plausibility of the fictional story that’s just preceded it.
Unfortunately, Stewart’s second behind-the-camera outing (after 2014’s Rosewater) is far less sharp or informative than that fleeting coda, which suggests that the former Daily Show host would have been better off tackling his chosen subject matter via non-fiction means.
Debuting on VOD on Friday, June 26, the feature is a jokey saga about the love of money as the root of all political evil, focusing on the efforts of seemingly well-intentioned strategist Gary Zimmer (Steve Carell) to revive the Democratic National Party—and, by extension, his own career—by turning a viral video sensation into a mayoral candidate. Mired in red-state, blue-state dynamics, it’s a tale fixated on the financial and media machines that encourage greed and foster polarization. Despite a twisty third act that flips everything on its head, it’s also a film content to indulge in condescending clichés and cornball humor. In desperate need of ruthless incisiveness, it goes soft at every turn.
Stewart’s desire to address a serious issue in conventional mainstream cinematic fashion illustrates that, though he’s relinquished his nightly Comedy Central duties skewering the American political landscape, he remains committed to, and concerned about, the state of our union. What’s disheartening about Irresistible, however, is how toothless it turns out to be. Stewart’s film begins in the aftermath of the 2016 election, with Zimmer reeling from his failure to propel Hillary Clinton to the White House. His fortunes take an apparent turn for the better when a lowly assistant calls to his attention a YouTube clip of former Marine colonel Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper), now a farmer in Deerlaken, Wisconsin, railing against an intolerant resolution being passed by Mayor Braun (Brent Sexton). To Zimmer, Hastings is like a gift from on high—a well-spoken conservative old-timer with a military pedigree and progressive ideals. As he later describes him, “He is the real deal. It is like a Bill Clinton with impulse control. Like a churchgoing Bernie Sanders with better bone density.”
Before long, Zimmer is on his way to Deerlaken, a hamlet initially identified by on-screen text as “Rural America: Heartland, USA.” That’s certainly how the region is viewed by Zimmer, an elitist phony who works overtime to present himself as an authentic everyday liberal, as proven by his renting an Explorer for his trip and yet asking for one with a fancy Bose or Bang & Olufsen sound system, or his visit to the local Hofbrau, where he strives to fit in with the bumpkins by ordering a Budweiser and burger. Hastings is Zimmer’s opportunity to restage the 2016 election in microcosmic terms, with the Democrats finally “seeing” their red-state compatriots, speaking to their needs and, more importantly, winning their votes. Thus, when his Republican rival Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne), a cutthroat monster with sleek blonde hair and equally severe outfits, arrives on the scene to run the mayor’s campaign, Zimmer views this not as a threat but, rather, as the very challenge he sought in the first place.
In the middle of this fight is Hastings and his daughter Diana (Mackenzie Davis), whom Zimmer clearly takes a liking to despite the fact that he’s decades older than her. That age difference is an eventual joke in Irresistible, but like so many of the proceedings’ zingers, it’s far less pointed than intended. Large swaths of the visually drab film are dedicated to wan, demeaning culture-clash comedy, with Zimmer acting first awkward and surprised at small-town hospitality and naivety, and then increasingly haughty, dismissive, and anything-goes merciless once the race heats up. He’s a cheery guy bringing high-powered (and massively funded) Washington power to an enclave suffering immense economic hardship, and many of the jokes in Stewart’s script focus on the relationship between Zimmer’s coastal personality and the sleepy province in which he finds himself—for example, he demands cows as a backdrop for Hastings’ campaign announcement (but not too many blacks all together in the middle!), and grows frustrated with the local café owner’s daily habit of making his coffee the wrong way.
Carell embodies his protagonist as a likable guy who’s quite obviously also a patronizing, pandering creep, and the balance doesn’t hold. One minute he appears earnestly invested in Hastings, and the next he’s revealing his true colors as an ambitious consultant just interested in defeating Brewster (whom he sometimes secretly screws). There’s a middle-of-the-road quality to Carell’s performance that’s in tune with the general milquetoast nature of Irresistible’s humor and underlying critique, which extends to cable-TV news outlets (like CNN and MSNBC) that revel in division because it props up their pundit-centric entertainment paradigm. Topher Grace and Natasha Lyonne appear as polling experts, only to serve as punchlines for meek digs at analytics, while Byrne, a scene-stealing comedienne capable of enlivening even the dreariest of scenarios, is asked to do a standard immoral-Republican routine that’s as dull as it is narratively inconsequential.
Stewart isn’t wrong in diagnosing campaign-finance manipulation as a cancer on the body politic, or in slamming D.C. movers and shakers for exploiting stereotypes and prejudices for their own selfish purposes. The problem is that he does so with a story that feels as if it’s had all its pointiest edges shorn off in order to appeal to both sides of the aisle. Whereas a show like Veep threw profane roundhouses in presenting everyone in this high-stakes arena as a venal, self-serving cretin, Stewart’s film doles out kid punches to make the same point—and, via a late bombshell, to illustrate that Hastings and his ilk are far savvier than Zimmer and Brewster assumed. With the 2020 election a few short months away, that “surprise” turn of events comes across as a calculated attempt to thread the needle between pleasing and alienating Trump and Biden supporters, who are mocked in an equally supercilious manner. But it makes Irresistible a weak and humorless plea for getting money out of politics.