It’s been five years since Jon Stewart left as host of The Daily Show, and six years since his debut film, Rosewater. In that time, the political world has changed just a teensy bit, and if ever there was a good time for an insightful political satire from a premier satirist, it is now.
Reasonable people will disagree as to how effective Stewart’s new film, Irresistible, is at achieving that goal, but it is one of those films where one viewing may not be sufficient. Steve Carell stars as Gary Zimmer, a Democratic political strategist who’s still smarting from the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Looking for a way to push his preferred narrative, he finds an ideal vessel in Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper), a seemingly progressive farmer/former Marine in the fictional town of Deerlaken, Wisconsin.
After a video of Hastings berating his city council over their stance on immigration goes viral, Zimmer travels to Deerlaken to try to convince Hastings to run for mayor. Zimmer is soon fully invested in making sure that Hastings wins over his conservative neighbors, especially after rival strategist Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne) joins the fight on the Republican side.
Stewart, who wrote and directed the film, certainly has enough knowledge about the political industrial complex to craft a story that both lampoons and criticizes it. The only issue is that for much of the film Stewart appears content to play in the familiar waters of “big city person comes to a small town and learns the error of his ways.” There is the occasional pointed critique of the role of money in politics or negative campaigning, but it all seems relatively light.
Without revealing specifics, an event toward the end of the film reframes the story, giving it much more depth in the process. The more you think about it, the more you realize that not only is Stewart taking on the insane political system, he’s also challenging the way we watch movies. On multiple occasions, he plays on assumptions we make about certain types of characters, relationships, and storylines, only to upend each of them in clever ways.
Unfortunately, that’s only in hindsight. On first viewing (which is all most people will give it), it’s lacking the oomph necessary to fully engage viewers. Familiarity between characters, an essential building block in believing relationships, is all but missing. It’s difficult to invest in an outcome when you never truly get to know anybody in the film.
Stewart is more in his comfort zone when commenting on the 24-hour news cycle, political spin, and other elements related to modern-day campaigning. Although the film is left-leaning, he takes potshots at both sides of the aisle, showing more disgust in the system itself than a desire to prove how one side’s viewpoints are correct.
Carell is great at playing smarmy characters, and he makes Zimmer work relatively well. Cooper goes low-key for his performance, which works perfectly, especially when he’s paired with Mackenzie Davis, who plays his daughter, Diana, probably the most interesting character in the film. Byrne is over-the-top as Faith, serving as Stewart’s avatar for all that’s wrong with conservative punditry.
Irresistible is an entertaining film in fits and starts, but Stewart doesn’t find his storytelling groove until the very end. By that point, many viewers may have already given up, never an ideal circumstance for a film with as much to say as this one.
Irresistible is available starting June 26 via Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, Vudu, GooglePlay, Alamo On Demand, and more. It is also playing in a handful of local theaters, including iPic Austin and Southwest Theaters Lake Creek Discount Theater.