Rating: (2.5 stars)
It’s good, in principle, to have Jon Stewart back. But the former “Daily Show” host’s sophomore effort as a filmmaker, a return to comedy after adapting journalist Maziar Bahari’s memoir of detention and psychological torture in an Iranian prison in the 2014 drama “Rosewater,” is a political farce that ultimately feels like a letdown, coming from one of the sharpest yet most compassionate satirical minds of today.
“Irresistible” follows the travails of two elitist, lying New York political consultants — one Democratic (Steve Carell) and the other Republican (Rose Byrne) — as they channel money and Machiavellian designs into opposite sides of a small-town Wisconsin mayoral race. Why bother? Because a very special candidate has emerged from nowhere: Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper), a Marine Corps vet who, as Carell’s Gary Zimmer puts it, “looks conservative but sounds progressive.” Gary, who heard about Jack from a viral video of the heartland populist speaking up for immigrants at a town hall, hopes to use Hastings’s candidacy as a springboard for bigger things. Byrne’s Faith Brewster means to thwart Gary’s plans before he can take Jack national.
This sets the stage for the all-too-predictable culture clash. Carell’s expensive spin doctor uses cows as extras in a campaign video; he orders a Bud and a burger from the local tavern, despite it being a German hofbrauhaus; and he is astonished to discover that the local inn doesn’t have WiFi (frankly, I was too). The other jokes, which include cracks about cheese curds, are almost all equally low-hanging fruit: Jack is a working farmer; the Manhattanites whom Gary convenes for a New York fundraiser — featuring paleo diet hors d’oeuvres — decorate their apartment with abstract sculpture made from pitchforks and other farm implements.
That type of broad humor might work on “The Daily Show.” Who wouldn’t laugh at silly-sounding acronyms, delivered with a straight face, to stand for electoral demographics? (SMAWs are “single, middle-aged women”; a MOSH is a “mélange of some Hispanics.”) In a movie, the wordplay just come comes across as goofy and far-fetched.
Part of the problem is that today’s absurd political realities — dark money, baldfaced dissembling, polarizing divisiveness, cynical calculation — are difficult to satirize without going too far. It’s hard to make fun of something subtly that is already a caricature of extremity.
But it turns out that many of the things that “Irresistible” seems to be mocking are, thankfully, not Stewart’s true target. There’s a third-act plot twist that redeems the film, albeit only slightly, and only in regard to its intentions, not its execution. Late in the film, Stewart pulls the rug out from under us, upsetting the premise on which the film — or, at least, the assumptions of its arrogant protagonists — seems to be based: people in flyover America are unsophisticated rubes.
Of course, the only people who think that are jerks.
This makes it hard to like Gary and Faith. They’re both unpleasant characters, regardless of which side of the political divide you happen to fall on. But the residents of Deerlaken, the film’s rural setting, are also cast in a slightly unflattering light: as borderline simpletons. The fact that Stewart is using that light to illuminate our own prejudices about them — in essence, calling out the falsehood of a narrative by establishing, and then debunking, it — doesn’t make it any less false.
If there’s a satisfaction to “Irresistible,” which ultimately turns the tables on slick political sharks (yea!), it comes a little too late to entirely remove the bad taste that the rest of the film, for at least an hour or so, in which it seems to revel.
R. Available on demand via various streaming platforms. Contains coarse language, including sexual references. 101 minutes.