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The first scene of Jon Stewart’s “Irresistible” takes place on Nov. 9, 2016 but would have felt dated a decade before that. The former “Daily Show” host’s eagerly anticipated return to political comedy is a staggeringly misguided affair that any other summer might merely have seemed toothless and out of touch, yet viewed through the prism of our particular moment is actively insulting. A smugly condescending attempt to skewer liberal condescension, the movie is as clueless as its stumblebum protagonist and a sterling example of everything it attempts to scold. It is also acutely, at times, mind-bendingly unfunny.
Stewart’s old “The Daily Show” cohort Steve Carell stars as Gary Zimmer, a veteran Democratic strategist who confidently advised Hillary to ignore the flyover states and thus wakes up weeping the morning after Election Day, surrounded by whiskey bottles and empty ice cream containers. Played with Carell’s increasingly tiresome brand of dunderheadedness, Gary’s a prickly little primadonna who only flies private, listens to Rodgers and Hammerstein on his Bose speakers and embodies every exhausted stereotype of a “coastal elite.”
Disgraced and depressed, Gary starts to get his groove back upon seeing a viral video of Chris Cooper’s retired Marine Colonel Jack Hastings, a salt-of-the-earth farmer standing up at a town meeting in Deerlaken, Wisconsin and delivering an impassioned speech on behalf of the local immigrant community. It’s a monologue Jimmy Stewart and Frank Capra might have envied, and in Colonel Hastings’ quiet dignity Gary sees the future of the Democratic Party. He quickly books a (private) flight to “Rural America, Heartland, USA” to try and cajole Jack into running for mayor against the little town’s longtime Republican incumbent.
The folksy farmer soon agrees to the city slicker’s cockamamie scheme, attracting the attention of the national news in a manner similar to Jon Ossoff’s upstart Georgia congressional campaign in 2017. Before you know it, big-money donors obsessed with optics are funneling millions into this tiny town’s mayoral race, with the opposition hiring Rose Byrne’s Stepford-blonde Kellyanne Conway clone (who also happens to be Gary’s ex) for maximum cable news mania. I suppose Stewart is attempting to satirize the media’s penchant for making mountains out of molehills — something he especially excelled at back in his “Daily Show” days — but his targets here are barn-door broad and beyond stale. The film proceeds as if “liberals are effete, conservatives drive pickup trucks” was some sort of shattering revelation. Stewart’s shooting for Preston Sturges here but comes up with something more like “Welcome to Mooseport.”
In these tumultuous times, I guess it might be comforting for some viewers to visit this movie’s imaginary America where pesky things like race and women’s rights have no bearing on people’s political ideologies. Those immigrants about whom Colonel Hastings spoke so eloquently remain politely in the background and aren’t given any lines. Blacks are confined mostly to fancy-schmancy New York City fundraising parties where they’re lectured about living inside an echo chamber, and since this is a movie from a major Hollywood studio nobody dares say the word “abortion.” Heck, aside from the opening scene no one even mentions Donald Trump. Bob Seger’s “Still the Same” is the film’s de facto theme song, playing over the opening credits and another montage later in the movie, as if implying everything here is just business as usual.
It’s tough to overstate how much Stewart’s tenure on “The Daily Show” was a balm during the Bush years, providing a much-needed nightly perspective check during a time so crazy even Keith Olbermann seemed sane. But long before he retired in 2015 the show had grown hectoring and tedious, easily surpassed by his protégé John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight.” Stewart came off as cranky and bored, but had still banked enough goodwill that we all gave him a free pass for his dull, dutiful 2014 directorial debut, “Rosewater.” (He didn’t even catch any flak for casting Gael Garcia Bernal as an Iranian.) Personally, I’d checked out around the time of his 2010 “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear,” a weird bit of bothsiderism demagoguery that suggested Stewart was spending too much time reading his own reviews.
What’s maybe most depressing about “Irresistible” is his lack of curiosity. Great comedy is specific, and that gag title card reading “Rural America, Heartland USA” is about how much effort Stewart puts into depicting the people of Deerlarken. (The film was shot in Georgia, which doesn’t really resemble Wisconsin but what’s the difference?) The cartoonish characters all vamp away on a single note as if his only direction were “try it bigger,” leaving Carell shrieking like a banshee as Byrne licks his face. The two spend a lot of the movie shouting gross sex stuff at each other in crowded public places while polite, midwestern extras pretend not to hear them. It all beggars belief even before the big dumb twist at the end.
Yeah, about that. “Irresistible” ends with a plot turn so preposterous the closing credits are actually accompanied by video footage of Stewart interviewing an expert who confirms it could really happen. The holier-than-thou hypocrisy of the finger-wagging finale tries to upbraid Carell’s character for not paying enough attention to the people around him, while at the same time coming from such a blinkered, obstinate perspective Gary might as well have directed the movie himself.
“Irresistible” is available June 26 to rent on most video on demand services.
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