- Written and directed by Jon Stewart
- Starring Steve Carell, Rose Byrne and Chris Cooper
- Classification R; 101 minutes
Remember the 2012 political comedy The Campaign with Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis? How about 2004′s Welcome to Mooseport, which boasts Gene Hackman’s last on-screen credit? (I mean, so far; the man is still alive, his retirement financed by those filthy Mooseport dollars.) Maybe you instead fondly recall 2006′s American Dreamz? Swing Vote from 2008? The 2006 Robin Williams vehicle Man of the Year? My Fellow Americans from ’96? 2003′s Head of State? No, of course you don’t. No one does.
With rare exceptions – Dr. Strangelove, sure, but also Election, Tanner ’88, and the ages-better-every-electoral-cycle Dick – there is little evidence of a good American political comedy. Partly because the real thing is more ridiculous than any gag a screenwriter could hope to conjure. Partly because these movies are pushed by studios that exist one way or another in the political sphere, and their products are thus sanded down to inoffensive nothingness.
Keep this ironclad truth in mind while watching Irresistible, a new comedy that is extraordinary only in its extreme disposability. It starts with its ultra-forgettable title and continues through its blander-than-Jared-Kushner sense of humour (forgive me that easy Kushner joke; I’m only trying to play on the same level as the film).
This dispiriting news might come as a small shock, given that Irresistible is written and directed by Jon Stewart. As the voice of reason during the quaint-by-comparison terror of the George W. Bush years, Stewart seems like the natural, maybe the only, candidate to mock American politics circa this 2020 nightmare. Now five years removed from his duties on The Daily Show, it is easy to look back fondly on Stewart’s Comedy Central reign and pine for his agitated brand of “Whaaaaaa?” bug-eyed incredulity – to imagine that, if he were perhaps still behind the anchor desk, we would all be enjoying a patio brunch right now instead of eating toast on our toilets, terrified of the outside world.
Yet, as Irresistible makes clear from the get-go, Stewart may not have been the hard-working satirist we all believed him to be. Comedy is hard; poking fun at the U.S. electoral system is easy. Given a few hours and a dedicated writing staff, I’m sure most anyone reading this review could slay the mighty paragon of trust that is Fox News. Giant targets for giant laughs. We loved Stewart because we hated everything else. The Daily Show was funny in the moment, but only then. Like Stewart’s favourite on-camera gestures – the faux-exasperated deep sigh at the camera, the insincere slack-jawed gape – The Daily Show practised a satire of tics and shrugs.
Which is as good a summation of Irresistible’s sensibilities as I can muster. Ostensibly one long joke about Super PACs – political action committees that murkily fuel campaigns – Stewart’s new film might be eye-opening for anyone who has never before watched a second of cable news. For everyone else, it is a deeply obvious tour into a progressive mind left to rot.
The film opens in a Donald Trump world, though it is blessedly free of any Trump facsimile. Instead, we follow Democratic spin-master Gary Zimmer (Steve Carell), who after botching Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign searches for salvation in a small Wisconsin town’s mayoral race. It’s there where a retired Marine with liberal tendencies (Chris Cooper) is seeking to oust a hard-right incumbent (Brent Sexton). Assuming that a win in rural America could portend big things for Democrats across the country, Zimmer turns the tiny election into his own personal battle for the soul of democracy, pumping in millions of Super PAC dollars and attracting the attention of his arch-rival, the snake-tongued Republican strategist Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne).
The setup has potential, in that it’s mined from the real-life surreality of Democrat Jon Ossoff’s 2017 Georgia campaign, in which the political system pumped US$50-million into a tiny congressional election. Someone with a sharper sense of wit – or at least the courage to scorch the political earth of both parties – could have had a bloody ball. At the very least, the casting of Stewart’s former Daily Show colleague Carell – plus Byrne, Cooper, and a host of dependable supporting players like Topher Grace, Natasha Lyonne and Mackenzie Davis – should have delivered a semblance of satisfaction. I’m not asking for much, just a chuckle or two. But Stewart is not so interested in making a good movie as a clever one, and even there he fails.
Constantly, the writer-director mistakes self-deprecation for subversion – before heading to town, Zimmer reads Wikipedia’s entry on Wisconsin – and is fundamentally disinterested in anything that complicates his simplistic Washington-be-crazy worldview. It is the kind of movie whose politics are distressingly binary, and whose idea of comedy is similarly polarized into two ends of different extremes: the alleged hilarity of hearing a powerful woman order a man to perform oral sex on her, and having heartland farmers earnestly quote media theorist Neil Postman.
Irresistible is toothless, it is weak-willed and it is depressingly unaware of either of these facts. If this is indeed Stewart’s response to the madness of the Trump era, then we should all be glad that he decided to depart The Daily Show when he did. It is clear that he didn’t have anything left to say.
Irresistible is available digitally on-demand starting June 26
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