Jon Stewart has built a reputation as a truth-teller. Sixteen years of cracking open America’s political machine on The Daily Show, followed by a retirement dedicated to 9/11 first-responder advocacy, will do that. In the feature-length VOD movie Irresistible, written and directed by Stewart, he assumes the truth-teller role again, homing in on a hyper-local election to expose a system that’s shifted away from ideological debates to popularity contests. The satire is goofy and insightful. But unlike The Daily Show’s ripped-from-the-headlines comedy, or Stewart’s grim debut feature, the hostage biopic Rosewater, his second feature feels like it was broadcast from another galaxy, and is only now reaching our current Earthly conversation.
In a rut after the election of Donald Trump, Democratic political strategist Gary Zimmer (Steve Carell) is looking for a glimmer of hope. He finds it in Marine Colonel Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper), who, in a rousing viral speech, stands up to his local, right-leaning leaders to defend undocumented workers and impoverished people put out of work by a failing economy. Seeing the future of his party in this YouTube sensation, Zimmer descends on the Midwest in hopes of turning Jack into “a Bill Clinton with impulse control.”
He brings eight metric tons of latte-sipping, iPhone-tethering, Washington D.C. energy to the mom-and-pop-shop-filled town, and he also comes with a target on his back. When the Kellyanne Conway-esque Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne) catches wind of Gary and Jack’s mayoral campaign, she puts the full force of the RNC behind the incumbent, and focuses the 24-hour-news spotlight on everyone involved.
Irresistible is relentlessly earnest, suggesting the power of fresh-baked pastries can melt the heart of the most cold-hearted strategist. As Gary, Carell is a conniving Grinch who’s bound to learn a lesson by the time the credits roll. Though he swoops in with a tactician’s talons, ramping up media plans and even whisking Jack away for a quick Manhattan visit to rub shoulders with deep-pocketed donors, it doesn’t take long for the camaraderie of his ragtag campaign staff to make him question his fast-lane existence. If only he could find some WiFi in this wacky little town!
Instead of aping the intensity of Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker’s legendary doc The War Room, or delivering the punchy breakdowns of The Big Short, Stewart concentrates on the human element. Jack’s supporters are quirky, the opposition is a caricature, and the media hyping up the showdown is the obstructive enemy. The choice makes it one big sitcom (complete with Office-ready campaign operatives played by Topher Grace and Natasha Lyonne). Stewart clearly did his homework — the movie feels like it’s being propped up by the last three years of Atlantic magazine cover stories — but the message lacks any sense of bite or power.
Gary’s arc is obvious yet satisfying, mostly thanks to his foil. Faith has the advantage of being even more cutthroat, and whenever they clash (or fall back into old romantic patterns), Stewart lets Irresistible explode into a true romp. The two gamble on their victories with highly sexual wagers. They bicker on MSNBC to the point of invading each other’s split-screen box. They death-stare each other down across Main Street. Byrne and Carell become a pair of political cartoons, in full control of their buffoonish behavior.
Cooper, always the sage, reels the film back in: On the campaign trail, Stewart gives Jack moments to opine on the American situation in a way that paints people like pawns. Why can’t politicians be honest with constituents? Why do we need the money, the ad campaigns, and the hoopla? As we know from the last few weeks of reality, widespread societal change is a bit more active than Stewart’s old-fashioned fantasy. But the filmmaker does have one trick up his sleeve: Jack’s daughter Diana (Mackenzie Davis), who despite being introduced with her hand up a cow’s butt, is a little more than the country bumpkin Gary assumes she is. The character gives the movie some surprising, satisfying twists.
Irresistible has the do-gooder soul of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and the gags of a seasoned, sophisticated comedian. But it might be a while before the film’s message and style clicks with viewers. In a moment of volatile government action, ideological polarization, the urgent Black Lives Matter conversation, and the unpredictable upheaval of coronavirus, Stewart has crafted a comedy that points fingers at both sides. The points are reasonable, but the takeaways are minimal, except for the fact that the visual of Carell cramped in a car parked outside a school in an effort to siphon WiFi is very funny. With Irresistible, Stewart remains a funny truth-teller. He just isn’t telling the truths that are vital to this moment.