Cynically optimistic, made before the current crisis
What an oddball achievement: optimistic cynicism. Jon Stewart’s solidly thoughtful political comedy Irresistible is a strange mix of sweetness and outrage, a pox-on-both-houses satire of America’s dysfunctional two-party system that refuses to revel in despair.
IRRESISTIBLE ★★★(3/5 stars)
Directed by: Jon Stewart
Written by: Jon Stewart
Starring: Steve Carell, Rose Byrne, Chris Cooper
Running time: 101 min
It’s also more on-brand for the gimlet-eyed former host of stalwart news parody The Daily Show. Stewart here eschews the atypical tone he struck with his directing debut, the dour, earnest Iranian interrogation drama Rosewater, and embraces a more Capraesque style. The pivot fits him about as comfortably as his trademark khakis: a bit square, a bit bland, but a sturdy look with a classic profile.
“I look forward to lying to you in the future,” coos GOP strategist Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne) to a glass-eyed media cluster as Clinton’s master operative Gray Zimmer (Steve Carell) does the same, a delightful fantasy translation of the bullshit talking points that spin doctors so effortlessly spew. After Trump’s improbable 2016 win, Zimmer and his fellow dems are in wilderness mode, a party in disarray and looking for a savior.
Enter Marine Colonel Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper), whose Norman Rockwell defense of immigrants at a town hall meeting in Deerlaken, Wisconsin goes viral and blows up on YouTube. “Looks conservative, sounds progressive,” mutters Zimmer in his slick, glass-walled Washington office. Reliably red-state Deerlaken has been hemorrhaging townsfolk ever since a closed military base thinned their population from 15,000 to 5,000. Zimmer thinks he can flip Hastings to being a Democrat and running for the mayoralty—especially with enough money from the DNC. And that could maybe-just-maybe crack the red-state veneer enough to start a Democratic domino effect in the heartland. “He’s our key back into the Forbidden City,” says Zimmer.
So Zimmer deigns to run Hastings’ campaign, swapping out his Caprese salads for burgers and Bud to ingratiate himself with the skeptical locals. His effort is so successful that the GOP gets wind of it and bankrolls the establishment. Brewster is their gleeful weapon, a trash-talking Kellyanne Conway type who condescendingly smiles and backstabs with equal relish, peddling xenophobia in a place she refers to as Turdville U.S.A.
And the stand-off only escalates, as both sides pump millions of dollars into the small-scale effort to control this small town. Super PACs move in, as do tactics like micro-targeting voters and intense voter groups. Data-crunching analysts dominate, citizens become pawns, and D.C.’s donor class create a nail-biter election eve. Who wins? Let’s just say that the people of Deerlaken get richly rewarded while serving up just desserts in equal measure.
Pleasantly entertaining, with a more than a few bullseye quips, Irresistible is always smart but never shrewd. Stewart delivers a persistently insightful look at this country’s political rot that also opts for cheap sight gags and salty language to clumsily widen its appeal. “I need some more fucking Hispanics!” yells Zimmer before reassuring his staff that the office is still a color- and gender-neutral environment.
Stewart is expert at skewering national politics without fear or favor, but Irresistible falls well short of pure evisceration. He’s clearly too fond of all the cogs in the machine just as much as he’s critical of them. “She’s a fucking genius! Oh, I hate her so much,” Zimmer wails after Brewster out-maneuvers him yet again. There’s a certain level of wonkish admiration, if not awe, for the lacerating efficacy of these political beasts. He lacks the dark indignation, or possibly sheer revulsion, that someone like Armando Iannucci so brilliantly conjures. It’s Veep lite. And although, in this crushingly nihilistic Trump era, such a sunny approach might seem naïve, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Stewart’s basic decency requires a fundamental belief that things can always get better. And if that tenet isn’t completely irresistible, it really should be.