In July 2016, a year after Jon Stewart said good-bye to The Daily Show, his onetime correspondent Stephen Colbert had him on The Late Show in what was framed as an attempt to make sense of the fact that Donald Trump had recently secured the Republican nomination. The premise of the sketch was that Stewart hadn’t heard the news at all. After 16 years on television, he’d retreated to a cabin in the woods to drink kombucha and live out his days at a bearded, blissful remove from current events. The sight of the beloved host spit-taking over “the guy from The Apprentice?!” seemed calibrated to appeal to the fans who’ve insisted, in the time since he left his nightly perch, that he was not just missed but needed. Stewart retired from The Daily Show two months after Trump announced his candidacy, and for some, Stewart’s absence and Trump’s rise to power have remained inextricably linked — as though, if only Stewart knew, he could come back and restore reason.
But Stewart has not actually been obliviously off the grid. He hasn’t even been entirely off the air, what with those occasional appearances on The Late Show, on which he serves as an executive producer. And his new movie, Irresistible, is a return to political satire that suggests that the comedian turned filmmaker is woefully ill-suited to address our tumultuous present. Stewart couldn’t have predicted that his second feature as a writer-director, after 2014’s Rosewater, would premiere in the middle of a pandemic and a subsequent far-reaching reckoning with our country’s bleak racial past and present. But it’s hard to imagine how a supposedly timely film about electioneering could feel more out of touch with even the past few years. Irresistible isn’t just shockingly ineffectual in its insights into national schisms — it is, in an added betrayal, unfunny, requiring its audience to slog their way through so much laborious farce without a laugh in sight.
Irresistible opens with Gary Zimmer (Steve Carell), a Democratic strategist, and his Republican counterpart, Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne), speaking with decoded cynicism to the press before one of the 2016 presidential debates. “What a wonderful play we’re putting on,” Faith says, with Gary adding, “Thank you all so much, and fuck you, America.” A similarly blunt, Adam McKay–esque segment about the codependent relationship between the media and politicians bookends the movie, but sandwiched in between is something significantly more mild mannered — a fish-out-of-water story about what happens when Gary, smarting after Hillary Clinton’s loss, heads to Deerlaken, Wisconsin, to woo a potential Democratic candidate. Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper), a farm-owning former Marine colonel, went viral in a video defending the town’s undocumented residents, and Gary sees in “this square-jawed paragon of Americana” the potential for a small-scale but much-needed blue triumph.
Gary takes over Jack’s mayoral campaign himself, both talking down to and developing a crush on the man’s daughter, Diana (Mackenzie Davis), in the process. Faith arrives to counter his efforts, and soon all sorts of national attention and serious resources are deluging this close-knit, economically embattled town. Gary’s research team (Topher Grace and Natasha Lyonne) parses demographic data down to single-person sets while Faith bemoans “D.C. elite coming into a place they no longer understand” on CNN and then flatly lies that she herself is from the area. Super-PACs are formed, increasingly cartoonish ads play as interstitials, and throughout it all, the Deerlaken townspeople soldier onward, striving to maintain their doughty authenticity in the face of this onslaught of opportunistic political professionals. Well, mostly — Irresistible does pack a twist that keeps its portrait of heartland America from becoming too straightforwardly Capraesque.
Funny how you never hear from those immigrants Jack was defending, though. It’s unclear whether they’re props for the town, but they’re certainly props for the movie, a signal flare meant to indicate Jack’s viability as a moderate to a desperate higher-up who doesn’t care about policy so long as his prospect isn’t a bigot. Irresistible is firmly of the belief that both parties are indifferent to the actual needs of people like residents of Deerlaken — but it’s revealing how much easier a time it has mocking coastal liberal condescension than the state of the right. The movie arranges a trip to New York to poke fun at the monied attendees of a private Manhattan fundraising event. But as the camera pans over food labeled “halal” and “paleo” to catch two of the few Black women who appear onscreen, wearing shirts that say “Stay” and “Woke,” you might wonder what exactly the qualities being associated with elitism are here.
At the same time, while Deerlaken is Trump territory, as far as the movie is willing to say it, there’s a squirming discomfort when it comes to acknowledging the nationalism and xenophobia that his campaign hawked so successfully. “All you have is fear,” Gary says to Faith, which is about as close as things get, and she sneers back that it’s more effective than his go-to tool of shame. Later, Gary says to Jack that “Democrats are getting their asses kicked because guys like me don’t know how to talk to guys like you” — leaving unmentioned who’s been better at talking to guys like Jack, and what they’ve been saying. Irresistible can only bring itself to contend with Trumpism as a failure of the left rather than as an active choice in itself, racism reduced to a by-product of economic anxiety rather than something the now president was able to weaponize because it’s been woven into the fabric of our country from the start. The movie takes place in “Heartland, USA,” as a tongue-in-cheek identifier toward the start puts it, and yet Stewart can’t bring himself to realize Deerlaken in any less abstract terms than that himself.
To complain about Irresistible’s comedic clumsiness in light of these larger failures feels anticlimactic, but it is a curiosity — a feature filled with talent that’s almost exclusively misused. Byrne, with her incredible timing, is grossly underutilized, though she gets one great line reading out of the following description of Diana: “She’s so pretty. I bet she smells like Pop-Tarts.” Davis is stuck playing the straight woman to no one, while Carell can’t bring himself to make Gary as loathsome as he should be. But it’s also impossible to make something funny when you’re not sure what the punch line is. There’s a moment toward the end of the movie in which two regulars at the town’s bar launch into a conversation about media complicity, then cite Neil Postman, and then argue about whether one’s turn of phrase was a simile or a metaphor. It’s a tired bit, the kind in which characters make a sudden display of erudition to subvert expectations about their intelligence, or, more accurately, their education. But the way it pops up in Irresistible brings with it a different kind of surprise, one that feels like it says more about Stewart than his intended audience. Who knew, the whole time, viewers were supposed to be assuming those guys were dumb?
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