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Jon Stewart’s political satire Irresistible would have looked obvious two presidents ago

Jon Stewart’s political satire <i>Irresistible</i> would have looked obvious two presidents ago
Photo: Focus Features
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

If you watched 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 headlining 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 and his team of writers and correspondents respond to a news cycle as rapid as today’s and a main character, of sorts, who’s proven too outsized to even properly satirize?

There are very few answers in Irresistible, the second feature Stewart’s written and directed. Though it opens with audio clips from the 2016 presidential debates, the film isn’t really interested in Trump—and maybe that’s for the best, given how much difficulty nearly everyone has found wringing meaningful laughs from his administration. 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 appearing on TV every evening. Charitably, one could argue that Irresistible reflects the evergreen 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. 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—would the results reinforce Trump’s surprise win or serve as a rejoinder to it?—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 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 (Stewart’s one-time Daily Show castmate 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 courting. (“He’s like Bill Clinton with impulse control, a Bernie Sanders who goes to church,” Zimmer later gushes.) 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 louts. 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 has strategic purpose (Stewart’s long game depends on it) but which also reduces the film to a 100-minute game of shooting a fish that’s flopped out of water and into a barrel. Zimmer is the kind of oblivious asshole who orders a “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 shit 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 nor Byrne’s over-the-top Republican ringer ever threaten to become more than caricatures.

Image for article titled Jon Stewart’s political satire Irresistible would have looked obvious two presidents ago
Photo: Focus Features

Stewart’s filmmaking debut was 2014’s Rosewater, which earnestly but dully recounted a true story of injustice in which he 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. But Stewart’s satire is broader than it was ever was 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. (One scene, involving Hastings being forced to basically beg for money in Manhattan, far from the town he’s hoping to run, includes a pan across a table offering a spread of Halal, Paleo, and Kosher options.) 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 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 shore up votes. And there is something backwards about turning a local election into a national circus, and forcing candidates to hobnob far, far outside the districts they hope to govern just to secure donations. The problem isn’t with Stewart’s message but with his delivery system: 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 own version of an October surprise, a solidly sprung 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 halfway-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.