Jon Stewart could have not predicted that his new movie, “Irresistible,” would be released when we are months into a global pandemic and weeks into a nationwide protest movement.
However — considering the political divisiveness of the last four years, if not longer — what made Stewart think a plague-on-both-your-houses political satire would play in 2020?
Jon, buddy, read the room.
What was Stewart, who wrote and directed this irritating comedy, thinking? That a movie about the evils of big money in politics would make Republicans and Democrats sit up as one and say, “By gum, that fellow’s right”? That a movie that condescends to middle Americans, depicting them both as naive rubes and icons of moral and intellectual superiority next to those D.C. city slickers, would somehow appeal to that same demographic?
Stewart, the longtime anchor of “The Daily Show” and once our sharpest political satirist, has miscalculated wildly — creating a movie that will succeed in his goal of bringing together both ends of the political spectrum, if only in how they hate it equally.
Steve Carell, Stewart’s former “Daily Show” foil, stars as Gary Zimmer, a Democratic campaign strategist whose confident predictions of Hillary Clinton’s victory in 2016 haunt him during the Trump presidency. Looking to revitalize the Democratic party’s heartland appeal, he leaps when an intern directs him to a viral YouTube video of Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper), a retired Marine in a small Wisconsin town, speaking at a town hall, making a heartfelt plea to look out for our neighbors, including immigrants.
Zimmer, thinking he’s found a new hero for the Democrats, makes the trip to tiny Deerlaken to convince Hastings to run for mayor, to unseat the Republican incumbent, Mayor Braun (Brent Sexton). Hastings agrees, on the condition that Zimmer personally run the campaign. Zimmer agrees, and tries to ingratiate himself with the townspeople — particularly to Hastings’ skeptical daughter, Diana (Mackenzie Davis).
Zimmer’s Republican rival, Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne, a scene-stealer as a faux Kellyanne Conway type), catches wind of what’s happening in Deerlaken and brings GOP money and strategy to support Braun. Quickly, a sleepy mayoral race becomes a big-money proxy fight, with focus groups, opposition research, dirty tricks, national media and “dark money” overwhelming the race, and blurring the lines between what separates Zimmer and Brewster. (There’s a suggestion of sexual relations between Zimmer and Brewster, a creepily literal take on the cliche that “politics makes strange bedfellows.”)
Stewart gets some laughs mocking the absurdity of Zimmer, a D.C. insider, trying to act folksy and down-home. He also creates a few moments of poignancy, none better than when Hastings, a reluctant candidate, stands before a room full of rich New York donors Zimmer has gathered, and must convince them to care about his little Wisconsin town.
So much of what Stewart throws on the screen — like the comical cameos by Debra Messing and Bill Irwin — doesn’t land with any sting. And his effort to create some sort of political “Sullivan’s Travels,” where the arrogant outsider gets schooled on the wisdom of the common folk, becomes as patronizing and as phony as the ads Zimmer writes for Hastings’ campaign. (Stewart also skewers journalism frequently, so when he reads negative reviews like this one, he can insulate himself and say the media can dish it out but can’t take it.)
Stewart’s ultimate message in “Irresistible” — that money runs rampant over our politics — may be true, but when it’s delivered in such a display of both-sides-are-bad snobbery, it comes off as a lecture from someone who’s out of touch and out of ideas.
Jon Stewart ventures into middle America to make a point about the evils of politics, but gets lost in his own condescension.
Where • Video-on-demand rentals, on most platforms.
When • Available starting Friday, June 26.
Rated • R for language including sexual references.
Running time • 101 minutes.