Comic and political satirist Jon Stewart returns to the fray he stepped away from when he gave up “The Daily Show” with “Irresistible,” an airless political comedy almost nostalgic for an America that knew how to compromise.
It’s a send-up of “the process” as it is practiced now, with the scorched earth that dogmatic, big money politics has given us. But in setting us up to settle for less than what we want or think the country needs, in lampooning the coarse language but not the divisive rhetoric, malignant hatred and genuine gulf that separates us, the movie itself feels like a compromise.
“Irresistible” traffics in tropes even as it warns us against stereotyping “the other.” It disguises itself in a “fish out of water” — crude, smart, manic city folk interfering in “salt of the Earth” “small town Americana” framework. He invites us to rediscover this forgotten America, and realize it’s more sophisticated than we give places we derisively dismiss as “BFE”credit for.
Think “Doc Hollywood,” only not particularly funny and a whole lot less charming.
Steve Carell plays Gary Zimmer, a high-power D.C. Democrat, a consultant who hasn’t recovered from the 2016 election. When a staff member shows him a web video of a retired Marine Col. and Wisconsin farmer’s city council speech in favor of tolerance, empathy and against an ordinance requiring driver’s license and proof of citizenship for local services, Zimmer lights up.
“He’s a Democrat! He just doesn’t know it yet.”
And through him, and the upcoming mayoral election in tiny Deerlaken, Wisconsin, Zimmer sees “our key back into the Forbidden City.” He’ll go and talk this Col. Jack Hastings into it. No sweat.
Zimmer dismissing the offer of a “7 Series” (BMW) rental car with “Might as well write ‘Liberal douche bag across my forehead” is undercut when he knows exactly what luxury package to get on the Ford Explorer that sends the right message. The chartered jet with its gourmet dinner that he takes there? Nobody needs to know that.
The locals “making” him when he shows up at the Hofbrau tavern and inn? The “Budweiser and burger” that fools nobody that he’s not “D.C. Gary?” The eyebrows raised at his unguarded language, even as he’s trying to persuade the Col. to run?
The bigger problem, as Zimmer tries to stage manage cattle by skin color for the TV-friendly campaign announcement press conference, is that none of this stuff is particularly funny. A smirk here, a grin there. Carell could play this guy in his sleep, and Stewart’s idea of sharp observations and funny commentary is…dated.
Finally, Rose Byrne shows up as the ruthless D.C. GOP consultant Faith Brewster, who will spend any amount, tell any lie, because “crushing the last piece of hope in your eyes gets me off.”
Suddenly, this has become a high-stakes/big money “bellwether” election, cable news-friendly, big pocket donors who need to be courted in New York, the works.
The earnest elements in the film work far better than the funny ones, but even they feel out of step with the country’s current temperature. Dying small towns, people “left behind” by the (then) current economy, reactionary policies taken up by people who are “scared” aren’t just in whiter-than-white swing states like Wisconsin.
Byrne doesn’t provide the comic spark the film needs because Stewart shortchanges her character. He pays more attention to the farmer’s daughter (Mackenzie Davis), who goes along with all this, like her Dad, but who has a skepticism he never shows.
She’s not keen on abrasive Gary’s approach, “to flatter them (his backers) you have to condescend to us,” the voters.
Again, earnest, not funny.
Stewart’s treatment of the Bryne (cynical man-eating slicker) and Davis (wholesome farm “girl”) characters is stereotypical enough to make one wonder if he’s “woke” enough to make this movie, which feels very 2017 in most other ways as well.
This doesn’t have the wit or warmth of “Swing Vote” or the mean-spirited political currency of “Veep.”
Stewart is more interested in squishy “messaging” and “remember how to LISTEN” to others’ point of view preaching than it is in being funny. Who’s going to be satisfied with the warm fuzzies when we come looking for satire that makes us laugh at how ridiculous things have gotten?
Yeah, we’ve seen that “warring political consultants” comedy before, recently in “Our Brand is Crisis,” for instance. Avoiding repeating that is understandable. It’s just that “Irresistible” doesn’t come up with anything to replace that Big Joke all the other jokes revolve around — no “Swing Vote” civics lesson in warmth, no nasty “Veep” style political currency, either.
If Carell is more amusing than hilarious, and Bryne doesn’t have enough to work with, where is the big laugh in all of this?
That would be the “rocket man” campaign donor, played as a “still alive via technology” walking robot by the clown Bill Irwin. He has one scene. He gets the one big laugh. And he’s the only “Irresistible” thing in “Irresistible.”
MPAA Rating: R for language including sexual references
Cast: Steve Carell, Rose Byrne, Chris Cooper, Mackenzie Davis, Natasha Lyonne, Topher Grace, Bill Irwin and Brent Sexton
Credits: Written and directed by Jon Stewart. A Focus Features release.
Running time: 1:41