If you watched, or were familiar with, The Daily Show during its 2000s heyday, you might now wonder how Jon Stewart, its one-time host, would have risen to the challenge of covering our particular political moment. In his tenure leading Comedy Central’s late-night hit, Stewart made a nightly feast of Washington’s foibles and failures — running every story through his signature blend of sarcasm and sincerity, making clear-eyed sense of what the actual news programs often struggled to unpack. How, though, would the comedian respond to a news cycle as fast as today’s and a main character, of sorts, who’s proven too outsized to even properly satirize? In Stewart’s second feature, Irresistible, there are very few answers. Though it opens with audio clips from the 2016 presidential debates, the film isn’t really interested in Trump — and that’s probably for the best, given how much difficulty nearly everyone has found wringing laughs from his time in office. Yet Stewart, who once earned a living cogently commenting on the most current of events, has made a comedy whose insights into the absurdities of Red/Blue America campaign tactics would have seemed a little obvious even back when he was still running his show.
Generously, one could argue that Irresistible reflects the endless problems of our system — which is to say, the film might be making the point that the post-Trump era isn’t radically different than what came before it, at least in terms of how the two parties approach the concerns of their constituencies. But when the wisdom being imparted is this conventional, you better find a dramatically or comedically satisfying way to package it. It’s just that Stewart hasn’t. Even his real-life source of inspiration isn’t timely, exactly. The movie is loosely modeled on what’s considered to be the first nationally relevant political contest after Trump’s victory: the special election, in early 2017, to fill a congressional seat in Georgia’s 6th district. Seeing the election as a chance to shape the narrative in advance of the midterms, Democrats and Republicans pumped some $50 million into the competing campaigns, making it the most expensive House race ever. In Irresistible, the setting has been changed to Deerlaken, a struggling fictional town in Wisconsin, and the event itself to a much lower-stakes mayoral election, though that doesn’t stop outside forces from framing it the same way: as a battle for the soul of America.
The catalyst of it all is cellphone footage of one Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper), a farmer, widower, and military veteran who, early into the film, makes an impassioned plea for the rights of his undocumented neighbors at a town hall meeting. The video catches the attention of Washington strategist Gary Zimmer (Steve Carell), who sees in Hastings the makings of a new kind of Democrat: folksy but compassionate, faith-driven but progressive, with the potential to capture the votes of a heartland demographic his party had long since given up hope of successfully having. Flying out to Deerlaken, the DNC insider manages to talk Hastings into running for mayor of his historically conservative town — and, just as planned, the challenge generates media attention, inspiring Zimmer’s counterpart and rival, Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne), to rally the GOP in support of Hasting’s opponent, incumbent Mayor Braun (Brent Sexton).
Carrell has a talent for finding notes of nuance in oafs. But there’s no trace of Michael Scott humanity in the condescending boor he’s playing this time around. Rather than place Hastings at the center of the story, Irresistible unfolds mainly from Zimmer’s blinkered, competitive, patronizing perspective — a choice that, in the long game, has a strategic purpose but which also reduces the film to a one-hundred-minute game of shooting a fish that flopped out of water and into a barrel. It often appears that Stewart is being shallow and sentimental and predictable on purpose, to show how shallow and sentimental and predictable American politics has become. Which of course means that the movie’s condemnation extends to us, the viewers. Zimmer himself is the kind of oblivious prick who orders a “burger and a bud” at the local watering hole to appear relatable even though the place doesn’t serve either, and who says self-congratulatory crap like “I was just being witty and cynical.” Is it ironic that a film criticizing both parties’ habit of stereotyping would revolve around a stereotype, or is that just fair game? Either way, neither Zimmer’s nor Byrne’s over-the-top Republican ringer ever threaten to become more than caricatures.
Stewart’s feature debut was 2014’s Rosewater, which earnestly but blandly recounted a true story of injustice in which Stewart himself was tangentially involved. Irresistible is theoretically more in his wheelhouse, driven by a mixture of cutting disdain for D.C. dishonesty and empathy for the electorate. And Stewart’s at his strongest when he’s highlighting the absurdity of all these D.C. manipulators with their data and charts and apps and polls, rumbling through a town full of laid-off, blue collar people. But Stewart’s satire is broader than it was ever on television. He takes aim at low-hanging fruit with parodies of melodramatic campaign ads and squabbling cable-news panels, while reserving special scorn for out-of-touch big-city elites. Stewart’s sympathies are always with the people of Deerlaken, who he depicts as savvier and more good-hearted than those trying to manipulate them for the sake of party interests. But the movie never actually conveys any sense of the town’s political priorities, which feels cowardly and, again, ironic: Stewart treats them like noble props, ignoring their ideology as much as Zimmer does and never risking alienating his own base. Nor do any of them really emerge as distinct personalities — not even Jack’s daughter and the conscience of the movie, Diana (Mackenzie Davis), to whom Zimmer takes a potentially redemptive romantic interest.
Stewart isn’t really wrong about any of this. America’s political system is destructively dependent on camera-baiting spectacle and reducing people to polling data. Democrats do often ignore the concerns of the Rust Belt, visiting places like Deerlaken “only every four years,” as Diana puts it, to pick up votes. And there is something backwards about turning a local election into a national circus, and forcing candidates to mix far, far outside the districts they hope to govern just to secure donations. The problem isn’t with Stewart’s message but with his overall delivery: A satire that exists only to raise points that have become woven into the fabric of daily political conversation, and to score them against characters that exist only to receive a righteous, climactic comeuppance. The best thing Irresistible has going for it is its late-game plot turn that at least accounts for some of the movie’s lapses in logic, including why a supposed straight shooter like Hastings would ever be seduced by the opportunistic idealism Zimmer peddles. But even that somewhat-contrived-somewhat-clever development feels like setup for an easy win, like a photo opt clinching Stewart’s ideological victory over an opponent he skewered more gracefully night to night from behind a desk. Delivering obvious and sort of redundant notions, Irresistible often feels wholly strained, pushing mostly hot air around, with its glossy veneer concealing its blatant, hollow core.
Irresistible is available on VOD