Warning: This post spoils the entirety of Irresistible.
Irresistible, a political comedy about D.C. consultants descending on a small-town mayoral race, debuted on demand on Friday, and, judging by the reviews, the film’s title is particularly inapt. “It’s hard to imagine how a supposedly timely film about electioneering could feel more out of touch,” Vulture’s own Alison Willmore writes. “Like an artifact from a particularly contentious past, a stale corn chip trampled into Party-convention carpeting,” says Jeannette Catsoulis in the New York Times. In Vanity Fair, K. Austin Collins calls it “satire without teeth, like being gnawed on by baby gums for 90 minutes.”
Many of these scathing reviews have singled out Irresistible’s ending for special scorn. (Although Anthony Lane of The New Yorker liked it.) “Voila! The falsity and simplemindedness of the film turns out to be another way of making its point,” writes Matt Zoller Seitz of the movie’s third-act twist. Critics have discreetly avoided revealing exactly what happens in the surprise conclusion, but all these pans have a way of piquing a reader’s curiosity. As a connoisseur of polarizing twist endings, I decided to rent the movie myself to see what all the fuss was about. So what goes down at the end of Irresistible, and why does most everyone hate it?
Irresistible follows Gary Zimmer (Steve Carell), a demoralized Democratic strategist who spots a priceless opportunity to get the party’s mojo back after the 2016 election. In Deerlaken, Wisconsin, a retired Marine colonel named Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper) has just gone viral for defending undocumented immigrants at a town meeting. Seeing in Jack the chance to prove the Democratic Party hasn’t lost touch with rural America, Gary jets out to the humble burg to recruit him to run for mayor. Jack reluctantly agrees out of love for the town; as his kind-hearted daughter, Diana (Mackenzie Davis), says, “He would do just about anything to save it.” But the municipal election devolves into a national political arms race when Gary’s conservative rival (a dead-eyed, helmet-haired Rose Byrne) takes up the cause of the incumbent and Deerlaken, whose fortunes have declined after the shuttering of a local military base, is swarmed by hordes of yuppie politicos, cable-news camera crews, and grotesque super-PAC donors.
For its first two acts, Irresistible plays like a fish-out-of-water comedy made by someone who dislikes fish and doesn’t much care for water, either. Carell’s Gary is an utterly unpleasant figure, a windbag who toggles between condescending sarcasm and ineffectual hand-wringing. But he’s also our POV, the rare character who gets sketched out in something close to three dimensions. He’s doing it wrong, but he’s the only person doing anything. By contrast, the film is less interested in the residents of Deerlaken as people: They’re ciphers, bumblingly simple avatars of authenticity. The rest of the cast gets it even worse, popping up with literal labels on their clothing (e.g., “WOKE”) like figures in a political cartoon.
That is, until the twist. With Jack’s chance of victory seeping away, Gary pitches his team a last-ditch bit of mudslinging. Distraught, Diana runs to their opponent’s office, where we learn the truth: The whole thing, from the viral video on down, was her idea, a scheme to reinvigorate the town’s flagging economy by attracting millions in dark-money donations. If Jack felt like a well-off suburban liberal’s vision of the ideal red-stater, well, that’s because he was. And if the people of Deerlaken seemed rather lacking in agency, that too was by design. Everyone was playing a part to turn the tables on the D.C. carpetbaggers; that was the “anything” they’d do to save the town. As Seitz writes, “It appears that Stewart is being shallow and sentimental and predictable on purpose, to show how shallow and sentimental and predictable American politics has become … [his message] can be summed up as, ‘Well, it’s supposed to suck, because everything sucks.’”
Critics have compared Irresistible (unfavorably) to the work of Preston Sturges, but for me the twist brings to mind a more recent work: Bill Forsyth’s beloved 1983 comedy Local Hero, about an American oil scout who visits a remote Scottish fishing village in the hope of convincing the locals to sell their land for a refinery. (Spoilers for that film, which you can rent online, to follow.) Here, too, the outsider becomes the butt of the joke. It turns out the villagers’ seeming opposition to the sale is just a ruse to drive up the price. Like the good people of Deerlaken, they can’t wait to cash in.
So why does the same trick work in Local Hero but decidedly not work in Irresistible? First and foremost, Local Hero is a movie suffused with a love for its setting and filled with characters who are singularly themselves — the randy innkeeper who’s also the bartender and accountant, the beautiful scientist who might be a mermaid. It also helps that Forsyth has the good sense not to wait until the very end for his reveal. (It happens about halfway through.) The townspeople may be tricking their American visitor, but the movie is never trying to trick us.
It’s also telling that, in Local Hero, once the oilman learns the truth, he spends the rest of the film trying to come up with a way to save the town, while in Irresistible, Carell’s character simply leaves. After spending 90 minutes scolding coastal liberals for their shallow view of the heartland, the movie can’t be bothered to do much to actually complicate that view. And when we do get a glimpse of the residents being their unguarded selves, the effect is probably not what Stewart intended. Near the end of the film, a couple of barflies reveal themselves to be avid readers of media theorist Neil Postman. There’s a winking element to the scene that rankles. As Willmore puts it, “Who knew, the whole time, viewers were supposed to be assuming those guys were dumb?”
And those are just the thematic issues — think about the ending on a logical level for any amount of time, and your mind will buckle under the strain. (In a nation where no one can agree on the importance of face masks during a pandemic, the entire town was in on it?) Even if you, like Lane, find the twist a “clever” subversion of expectations, you’ll likely be put off by what follows, a series of sketches hammering home the message of the movie, climaxing with a chyron informing us that “Money lived happily ever after.” It’s the kind of gag that might have worked in Stewart’s old gig but in this setting just feels annoyingly smug — less a “Moment of Zen” than a moment of aggravation.