You’d be hard-pressed to deny that Jon Stewart is capable of sharp, funny satire in service of a concerned, common sense, progressive agenda, and his time on The Daily Show and guest appearance on CNN’s Crossfire are all the evidence needed to shut down an argument to the contrary. That reality makes his latest endeavor all the more confusing as Irresistible points its gaze towards the American political process, but instead of barbed wit and incisive wisdom the film aims only for gentle nudges and the most obvious of criticisms of both sides.
Gary Zimmer (Steve Carell) is a Democratic strategist, who, like every single political pundit at the time, completely screws the pooch when it comes to predicting the presidential winner in 2016. Still reeling from the burn, he sees possible redemption when a viral video from Wisconsin is brought to his attention. In it, a retired Army colonel named Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper) makes an impassioned plea for better, more humane treatment of immigrants in his home town. Zimmer immediately sets out to groom Hastings for an upcoming mayoral election — he’s looking ahead to bigger races down the line — and starts seeing progress almost immediately. A hiccup arrives in the form of his Republican counterpart, Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne), who starts pumping GOP funds towards Hastings’s competitor leading to a battle that catches the nation’s attention. Who will win, and more importantly, will the town still be standing when the dust clears?
Irresistible is a lightweight and fairly flat comedy for much of its running time that only really perks up whenever Byrne appears on screen. Stewart’s script gifts her with some terrifically scathing banter, and Byrne’s delivery is fire guaranteed to melt fans even as it earns her new ones. Her performance aside, though, the jokes, interactions, and observations all feel safe and dated in their critiques of both the Right and the Left. This year’s The Hunt took a similar path at times, but at least it also went for the jugular (both metaphorically and literally). Jokes about Dems loving lattes share the screen with the (correct) suggestion that the NRA doesn’t want Black Americans on board their shoot ’em up train, and it continually feels like a recycling of punchlines from the past decade.
The cast is fine, although Carell should really consider taking a break from “meaningful” comedies and focus instead on finding some funny ones, but as mentioned, Byrne is the only real standout as her character is written in a go for broke way that’s missing from the rest. Seriously, the banter she initiates regarding an oral sex exchange is gold. That said, while she’s obviously “terrible” Stewart can’t help but ensure she’s also appealing. It works, to be sure, but it highlights one of the script’s biggest issues. We’re dealing with people’s inhumanity toward each each other, real life and death stuff, but the film goes out of its way to make it clear that no one here is bad or evil — at worst, Stewart suggests, the Republican voters are misguided victims of a giant soulless machine. He doubles down by having Zimmer and company declare that “We’re the good guys” before realizing that hey, maybe they’re just as misguided and immoral.
The problem there, one of many, is that excusing those on the Right who are actively working to endanger, threaten, and mute marginalized voices actually *are* bad people. Hilary Clinton was right to call out the deplorables, and that one statement is alone more honest and aggressive than the entirety of this film’s 101 minute running time. The Left is hardly filled with angels, but the film comes across as severely tone deaf four years into an administration that continually acts as a clear and present danger to Americans and America alike. Curiously, and tellingly, while it’s the plight of immigrants that draws Zimmer to “Rural America, Heartland USA,” those same immigrants are never seen again in the film as Stewart instead chooses to aim his sights on the games being played while the nation burns. Sure, Zimmer himself isn’t actually interested, but neither is the film.
As he did on CNN’s Crossfire, where he took both conservative and liberal pundits to task for turning everything into a shouting contest rather than working together to solve real problems, Stewart’s script makes its second ginormous blunder by burying its real target late into the film’s third act. Spoiler, he’s actually here to criticize this country’s political machine — from the billions of dollars spent each election cycle to the deceptive, manipulative, and ultimately empty practices employed by both parties in bald bids to win power. Brewster tells a straight-faced lie on live television, and Zimmer comments that “She said it, and now it’s the truth.” We all know how the media manipulates the willingly dense among us, but the film acts as if this is a revelation.
Irresistible goes out on a minor high note with some end credits shenanigans before Stewart dampens the mood with a clip featuring former Federal Election Commission chairman Trevor Potter talking about how the events of the film could legitimately happen due to current rules and our broken system. It’s a very real issue, but hiding it in the tail end of a lightweight comedy arguing that both sides are both good and bad lessens the film to mere fluff — Byrne ensures there are just enough laughs to make it fluff worth a watch if you have the time and nothing else to do, but coming from Stewart, a man who’s displayed real fury in his past observations, Irresistible is anything but.