Jon Stewart is arguably the greatest political satirist of the last 20 years, so why does his new film IRRESISTIBLE feel like such a pulled punch? He’s in familiar territory, telling a story about a small-town candidate running for mayor and a big political operative from D.C. who becomes his campaign manager, but it’s too cutesy by half, and not nearly scathing enough in its indictment of our current electoral system. Some of it is fun, but the opportunity to become this generation’s THE CANDIDATE is a major missed opportunity.
Steve Carrell plays Gary Zimmer, a Democratic strategist still licking his wounds over the party’s failure to elect Hillary Clinton president in 2016. Right off the bat, examining all that went wrong in that campaign offers up a golden opportunity for biting satire, but instead, Stewart wants to tell a more embraceable story about small-town values. Thus, he tells a story owing a lot more to Frank Capra than THE DAILY SHOW ethos.
Stewart’s script has Zimmer’s next gig turn into a noble endeavor to help a retired general named Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper) prevail in his bid to be the mayor of a small Wisconsin town. Hastings gets Zimmer’s attention after he’s become a YouTube phenomenon. His filmed rant against the city council over budget cuts to the town’s unemployed goes viral and Zimmer senses an irresistible political star in the making.
Working for Hastings will also give Zimmer a chance to renew his spirit to fight the good fight too, so he treks out to Wisconsin to get a lay of the land. But no sooner is Zimmer in the Badger State, then he begins tripping all over himself and others trying to figure out small-town aesthetics. Of course, any political operative would know such burgs in the Midwest like the back of their hand given how key flyover state caucuses and primaries are, but Stewart writes Zimmer like a man visiting an alien planet.
Zimmer can’t get used to the kindness of the locals, their delicious pastries, or the fact that some taverns come with boarding rooms. Zimmer is so discombobulated by it all, he can’t even navigate a staircase up to his boarding room without foolishly dragging his carry-on back and forth after he realizes the bartender has the room key.
Stewart’s true satiric bite finally shows up when Rose Byrne arrives as an opportunistic GOP operative named Faith Brewster. She’s Kellyanne Conway crossed with Ann Coulter, only smarter and funnier. As so often is the case, Byrne is the best thing in the film, and her quippy banter with Carrell teases the promise of a Tracy/Hepburn film that never comes. Instead, Byrne disappears for big chunks of screen time that Stewart would rather fill with the white bread Hastings and his earnestly dull daughter Diana (McKenzie Davis).
Stewart even misses the chance to make hay out of the incumbent Republican Mayor Braun (Brent Sexton). Is he a Trumper, an old-school GOPer, what? And what does he think of the state of his party these days? We get very little about real issues at play on the political stage under the Trump years, and it’s shocking that Stewart seems totally unwilling to go there. Instead, he slams both sides, albeit in a generic way, with a few scattered potshots thrown at the media coverage on cable. His script does have some very good twists towards the end, but before that, too much of his film plays as too soft and sweet.
Carrell tries to give the material some moxie, but his character is too much of a doofus. It would have been so much better to have his operative behave like a shark, the smartest guy in the room, someone who had everyone’s number like Sheridan Whiteside in THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER (1942). Instead, he’s too close to Michael Scott from THE OFFICE.
On THE DAILY SHOW for 16 years, Stewart was that shark, devouring all sacred cows and never afraid to call out the true villains. But where is that bite here? Stewart seems to be using feel-good political comedies like MY FELLOW AMERICANS (1996) and SWING VOTE (2008) as his template, rather than the more scathing take offered up in VEEP and RECOUNT on HBO. And in a time where our POTUS is trying to become a dictator, we need Stewart on the scene with nothing less than his full rack of teeth.