Missed opportunity: Jon Stewart makes a disappointing return to political satire

Despite an all-star cast that includes Chris Cooper and Steve Carell, Jon Stewart’s Irresistible doesn’t land the quick-witted political jabs he so deftly dished out on “The Daily Show.” Despite an all-star cast that includes Chris Cooper and Steve Carell, Jon Stewart’s Irresistible doesn’t land the quick-witted political jabs he so deftly dished out on “The Daily Show.”

This review contains mild spoilers, so if you prefer to avoid them, let your main takeaway be that Irresistible is an unfunny comedy, an uneven production, and a toothless satire with a message about as clarifying in the current political climate as a Check Engine light in a demolition derby.

The second film from writer-director Jon Stewart, Irresistible follows Democratic strategist Gary Zimmer (Steve Carell), who’s attempting to reconnect his party with the voters it lost in 2016. Battered by that defeat, he finds hope in Deerlaken, Wisconsin, the source of a viral video showing Marine Colonel Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper) standing up for the immigrant population of his hometown. Seeing an opportunity, Zimmer flies to Wisconsin, and convinces Colonel Hastings, aided by his daughter Diana (Mackenzie Davis), to run as a Democrat against Republican Mayor Braun (Brent Sexton). That campaign catches the eye of Zimmer’s nemesis, Republican strategist Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne). Soon, the town becomes a battleground for the soul of America, gaining national attention, and outside money.

The premise isn’t terribly original, but there’s room enough for a savvy storyteller to fill it with good characters, witty repartee, and a few choice jabs at worthy targets. Though the entire cast is talented, there’s precisely one notable character—Byrne’s Brewster—and almost no jokes worth remembering. Much of this stems from the film never figuring out how it wants to treat the audience. Are we in on the joke? Are we supposed to find it mind blowing that our political system is corrupt? There’s a broad tone that never gels with the inside baseball shenanigans, and the amount of effort Stewart exerts to avoid pandering is itself patronizing.

Even when satire doesn’t land, there’s always the possibility that the narrative might make things worthwhile. Sadly, it doesn’t. Zimmer is wholly unsympathetic, and the film isn’t mean enough to make him an antihero. Natasha Lyonne and Topher Grace appear as analysts who do mostly the same thing, but have contempt for the other’s methods. This ought to be a terrific pairing, and the two have excellent chemistry, but the material gives them little to work with. The funniest moments in Irresistible barely rise to a chuckle, and when they’re over, it’s back to the pointless stuff. The bigger gags are often years too late to be of worth anything, like CNN’s grid of far too many pundits at once, or Fox juxtaposing the Hastings campaign with Al Qaeda training footage. Might as well throw a Bill-Clinton-likes-McDonald’s reference in there while we’re at it.

Stewart’s tenure on “The Daily Show” is one of the greatest combinations of the right host with the right platform at the right time. He helped cut through the noise of the Bush years, emboldening those who felt disconnected and hopeless, pinpointing exactly how our institutions were failing us and how our discourse became fractured. He did it by being funny, and by being right. Over time, though Stewart remained as funny and intelligent as ever, a negative trend found its way into more episodes. Too often, he favored individual targets over broad analysis. As the topics became murkier, like the financial crisis, the show became less bully pulpit and more soapbox, less call to action and more preaching to the choir.

The post-credits sequence of Irresistible indicates that this film might have sprung from the latter sensibility. Stewart interviews Trevor Potter, former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, and the two discuss a key plot point of the film. Potter explains a legal loophole, Stewart explains it back to him, and the two laugh at its absurdity. That’s it. No strategy, no next steps. People watching this movie will either already know what a PAC is or be lost about what they’re supposed to do about it. Folks who do engage in these practices won’t be shamed out of doing so. It is no revelation that there’s money in politics, political strategists lie, and partisanship blinds us to the bigger picture.

It’s certainly not Stewart’s fault that American discourse devolved the way it did, and he could not have anticipated releasing the film during a global pandemic and nationwide rebellion. But his decision to return to political satire with Irresistible is disappointing. He’s funnier than this, he’s smarter than this. He’s affected real change, especially with his fierce advocacy for 9/11 first responders. For many years, he was the face of bold political comedy. So why is this project such a dud?

Stewart’s previous film, Rosewater, had a sense of purpose that carried it through any problems it might have had. He felt an obligation to the film’s subject—journalist Maziar Bahari, who was arrested and tortured in Iran after appearing on “The Daily Show”—and to the viewers. It appealed to our empathy, raising real questions about unintended consequences of our actions, and keeping hope alive no matter what. It’s hard to imagine why he felt the need to reemerge five years later to tell us what we already know. It’s a bit like the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear. You can see the talent and respect the intentions, but why so much pageantry to say so little?

Irresistible

R, 102 minutes/Streaming (Amazon Prime)

Posted In:     Arts,Culture

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