by Kenny Hedges
Pundits and politicians will quibble about which side got off easier in Jon Stewart’s Irresistible, and they’ll all be missing the point. In part because the film is intentionally apolitical and in part because Stewart and company take their cues from old huckster movies like The Music Man, just with the stakes inverted.
There’s no question Stewart is angry, as the film begins in media res during the end of the 2016 campaign, where Democratic campaign strategist Gary Zimmer (Steve Carrell) and his Republican rival Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne) simultaneously have a meltdown at the presidential result. After a few years of heavy drinking, Zimmer comes across a small town Wisconsin farmer (Chris Cooper) whose recent youtube clip at a local council meeting went viral. It’s not long before Zimmer is out of his field in small town America, cozying up to normally right-leaning townies while trying to turn Cooper into the candidate he sees fit.
Before Wisconsin, we’re very much in Daily Show territory, but not in Stewart territory. The popular pundit has always put comedy first, and he’s vexed those attacking him as using that as a shield. Here, unsurprisingly, Stewart’s film works funniest when it goes broad. Even later scenes, such as Bill Irwin’s dead-but-for-all-the-movement one scene as a billionaire democratic donor not dissimilar to Elon Musk or Richard Branson, really play to Stewart’s strengths. It’s complicated, as his biggest strengths as a filmmaker and comedian are very much at odds with the personality he’s become. For those just in it for barbed wire jabs at Trump like Stewarts petname “Fuckface Von Clownstick,” they won’t entirely be disappointed, but ultimately the harder shots at either party directly feel like warmed over Daily Show bits (if not repeats) polished for a feature.
But that’s only the first fifteen minutes. Once the film’s fish-out-of-water plot kicks in high gear, with an effete Carrell trying to order a “burger and a bud” in a local German restaurant, the film starts in earnest.
Refreshingly though, the film doesn’t waste too much time hitting all the expected notes. Typical liberal jokes about the right wing heartland are done away with fairly quickly, and when they aren’t its deliberate.
To call what occurs in the film a twist is a little hyberbolic. Stewart’s script wisely withholds some key information, but not in any way that won’t be immediately obvious upon second viewing, or even the first to some.
But Stewart had spent so much time focusing on Carrell and Byrne’s personal motives for battling each other, it all falls by the wayside once the shift in focus occurs. Carrell and Byrne are very good, and there’s no lack of appropriate rancor between the two. The fact that the characters are likable at all is due in large part to the performances. There is no group Carrell won’t pander to, and no racist trump card Byrne won’t play.
Stewart was fortunate to have the leads he did, and it’s a bit of a shame he throws their characters under the bus narratively, but in a way, it is what we all want to see at this moment in time. We will forever argue about the system, but no one is saying it isn’t broken. Perhaps Stewart played it too smartly.
He seems to think so. Stewart’s credibility as a commentator will always be problematic for him, which might explain why, over the film’s credits after an already fun, jokey post-credit sequence, he feels it necessary to play footage of an interview he did with the former chairman of the FEC to say that, legally, the film could happen. While it’s a pleasure, as always, to hear Stewart discuss politics again, it’s a misguided addition that undermines more than establish any sort of legitimacy.
Next time, we’re happy to just take the movie.
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