Jon Stewart is back, and he has something to say

In 2010, when the populist Tea Party movement within the Republican party was becoming a growing force in its opposition to the then President Barack Obama, satirist Jon Stewart coined the idea for a satirical “Rally to Restore Sanity” in Washington DC. Although a comedic extension of his small screen work, it was rooted in his very real belief that a small group was essentially hijacking political discourse with their populist and directly polarising views, when most of America sat comfortably in the middle.

In many ways, Gary Zimmer, the Democratic political strategist played by Steve Carell in Stewart’s latest directorial effort, could be a stand in for the comedian himself. The film opens with Zimmer’s cocksure response following the final Presidential debate of 2016, confident that America was ready to reject the populism of Trump for a more sensible option – and just like the Rally to Restore Sanity, proved himself out of touch with just what it was the country wanted. 

As you’d expect from Stewart, the unintentionally but still ironically titled Irresistible is self aware as to just how divorced political elites are from the realities of small town life, a world away from the White House. The problem is that it’s written and directed by a man equally divorced from that reality; a film that should be about the condescension with which DC figures treat those thousands of miles away, that ends up painting a picture of the intersection of politics and rural life that couldn’t be further divorced from where America is in 2020. 

After a humiliating defeat in 2016, strategist Gary Zimmer (Carell) is shown a video of Marine Colonel Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper), a retired veteran who is filmed outing his frustrations at the Republican administration in his Wisconsin town. Believing this man to be the key to winning back Middle America, Zimmer flies over and pitches the Colonel the idea of running as a Democratic mayoral candidate – something that immediately piques the interest of Faith (Rose Byrne), a Republican strategist who is salivating at the idea of a proper race in the town’s election. 

For the most part, Irresistible seems stuck in a time warp, feeling like an adaptation of every New York Times “we visited the towns that voted for Trump” article published in 2017. But, for a comedy about the high stakes of a political race, puzzlingly makes everybody within this town apolitical; nobody references Trump or any of his policies despite this being a Republican stronghold, with the only bit of unpleasantness you’d expect in this environment (a short sequence where a small group of African Americans are shown to have their vote suppressed) played off as nothing more than a sight gag. Again, this is keeping with Stewart’s mantra that America mostly exists in the centre, and not prone to the polarisation you’d see at a Trump rally. But considering America’s current socio-political realities, with racial inequalities and police brutality against Black people leading to protests around the globe, this sheer toothlessness feels every bit as divorced from the mood of the nation as his satirical rally ten years prior.

If you were to be charitable, you could say that Irresistible understands some of this too. An inexplicable plot twist, casually thrown out in the final ten minutes, recontextualises the entire narrative through the eyes of a town frustrated that their concerns are ignored outside of an election year. But this is too little, too late – an afterthought that doesn’t make up for the film’s lack of, not just comedic bite but genuine insight into America’s heartlands. 

The film’s creaky screenplay, both out of touch and out of date, is at least redeemed by a cast fully committed to this minor work from a major comedy talent – although it would be a stretch to say they manage to mine some laughs from this material. Rose Byrne, as the icy Republican strategist, gets closer than most, although that’s largely because she’s channelling her Eastern European villain from Paul Feig’s Spy, but given an All-American makeover. The material is clearly beneath Byrne, as lazy sex jokes and irrelevant political references from four years ago (we’re still doing “I’m with her” gags?) naturally would be with any capable performer. But it’s a lot less painful when she’s delivering it, her caricature of a Kellyanne Conway-type strategist feeling brilliantly lived in, even if she exists only as a vague sketch within Stewart’s screenplay.

Irresistible is released digitally on June 26th

Alistair Ryder

Updated: Jun 22, 2020

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