Irresistible, the new political comedy written and directed by Jon Stewart, opens in the spin room after the third and final debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in 2016. A Democratic strategist, Gary Zimmer (Steve Carrell), and a Republican one, Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne), are each explaining to the assembled media just how thoroughly their candidate demolished the other’s. But there’s a twist: Instead of the usual pabulum, they’re both compulsively, if inexplicably, straightforward. “I’m lying to you,” Gary announces to the gathered reporters. Faith quickly one-ups him: “I’m actually in this position because of how effectively I lie to you. Are we clear?”
If you are reading those lines and wondering, are they funnier onscreen?, I’m sorry to to inform you that, alas, they’re not. Stewart has merely exchanged one form of pabulum for another. Political consultants spew dishonest spin? Hold the phone! I need a moment to recover from this wicked and probing assessment.
Throughout his career, but especially during the 16 years from 1999 to 2015 when he hosted The Daily Show, Stewart’s political critiques have managed, at their best, to be sophisticated, hilarious, and possessed of a certain unmistakably righteous anger. (For an extraordinary example of the last, see his congressional testimony on behalf of first responders last year.) These admirable qualities, of course, can be difficult to balance with one another. In Irresistible, available on demand Friday June 26, Stewart chooses to balance them by conspicuously omitting all three: The film is ludicrous, unfunny, and so ideologically tepid that in the current moment it seems almost reactionary.
The premise is that, in the days of Democratic confusion and disarray following Trump’s election, Gary sees a YouTube video of a potential savior: an ex-marine colonel named Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper) who spoke powerfully on behalf of undocumented workers at a city council meeting in the tiny, depressed town of Deerlaken in that swingiest of states, Wisconsin. “He’s a marine and a farmer and a widower,” says one of Gary’s rapt colleagues; he “looks conservative but sounds progressive” enthuses another. When one asks whether he’s a Democrat, Gary replies in the affirmative: “He just doesn’t know it yet.”
The plan is that Gary et al. will successfully run Jack as the Democratic candidate for mayor of this small, conservative town, and thereby remind the party how to win in the Heartland. Nor are they alone: Soon enough, Gary’s GOP nemesis, Faith, shows up in Deerlaken, too, as do Fox News, MSNBC and CNN. The mayoral race (again, for a dust-speck town in the middle of nowhere) winds up costing more than $40 million. If you’ve never heard of this happening—Washington-based elites investing heavily in a miniscule mayoralty with a candidate too old to plausibly move on to higher office—well, that’s because it’s never happened and almost certainly never will.
Irresistible is frequently like this: It labors to get the small details right in order to distract you from the fact that the larger picture is completely ridiculous. After a Big Twist in the final act, the movie’s credits even feature an interview with Trevor Potter, the real-life former chairman of the Federal Elections Commission, in which he agrees that the scenario Stewart has sketched out is technically possible. It’s also inconceivable, but who’s keeping score?
At first, Irresistible looks as though it will be an exhibit of conventional liberal wish-fulfillment with conventional conservative bogeymen. But while there are plenty of clichés about small-town life—the only internet Gary and his crew can get for their campaign HQ is via dial-up modem!—the movie’s ultimate targets are ones pretty much everyone can agree on: political consultants, Super PACs, glitzy fundraisers, obnoxious city folk who think they know everything about a community based on its polling and demographics.
There are some amusing bits along the way, as when the campaign divides the electorate into ever-thinner acronymic slices: WoMAMs (white middle-aged men), YAWMs (younger-aged white men). And whoever did the photo research for the title sequence—a montage of campaign diner shots from JFK to the present, scored to the Bob Seger song “Still the Same”—is responsible for what are easily the sharpest, wittiest 90 seconds of the entire film.
Carell and Cooper are both capably within their comfort zones, and Byrne has a couple of genuinely comic moments, as when she unexpectedly turns a cheek kiss into a full-on face lick. Mackenzie Davis shows up as the colonel’s daughter, and Natasha Lyonne and Topher Grace have small roles as members of Gary’s team. But Irresistible is the kind of calculatedly inoffensive movie that gives its stars few opportunities to shine or to sputter. It would be a disappointment under pretty much any circumstances. But this moment of pandemic and protest, with cultural and governmental breakdowns lying thick upon the ground, only serves to highlight the film’s deficiencies. A political satire should have teeth; Irresistible is nothing but gums.