irresistible trailer

We’re nearly five years removed from the last time that Jon Stewart hosted The Daily Show, a departure that seemed almost deliberately timed to coincide with the rise of Donald Trump from a loud, know-nothing right-wing presidential candidate to a loud, know-nothing right-wing president. Fans of Stewart’s may have wondered in the last half-decade how he would’ve responded to the even nastier shift in right-wing politics and the D.C. machine. You can breathe easy – Stewart’s second directorial effort, Irresistible, is a political satire of the present day, squarely residing within the current Trump administration. The downside is that Irresistible is one of the dullest, most toothless comedies in recent memory.

Stewart reunites with one of his old Daily Show correspondents, Steve Carell, who stars as Gary Zimmer, a Democratic political strategist adrift after Hillary Clinton’s loss in the 2016 presidential election. He’s inspired one day to help on a local level, when he watches a viral video of a folksy middle-aged ex-Marine, Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper), speaking out on behalf of undocumented immigrants. Gary quickly becomes convinced that Jack could be the next mayor of his small Wisconsin town, espousing Democratic values while embodying the look and feel of a Republican stereotype. But an old rival of Gary’s, Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne), decides to throw the weight of her right-wing donors behind Jack’s competition in the election. 

In the later years of Stewart’s time on The Daily Show, one of his major topics was campaign election reform, or the complete lack of it in American politics. That topic drives Irresistible, as both Democrats and Republicans start throwing millions of dollars into a small Midwestern town, with cable news crews descending like vultures to cover the ins and outs of a race that almost everyone would otherwise ignore. It’s not so much that the jokes in Irresistible, such as they are, are implausible or hard to imagine happening in real life. It’s that Stewart (who wrote the script, too) is making jokes in 2020 that wouldn’t have felt sharp-edged in 2015. Nearing the end of Trump’s four-year term, jokes about cable pundits overcrowding a screen to parrot empty talking points, or gags about how the D.C. elite perceive the people of the Midwest to be dumb and lazy, are themselves dumb and lazy.

“Dumb and lazy” is what the entirety of Irresistible feels like, in spite of energetic performances from Carell, Cooper, and Mackenzie Davis (as Jack’s strong-willed daughter). Their commitment to the roles is almost what makes Irresistible so frustrating. Consider a scene midway through the film, where Gary brings Jack to Washington, DC to meet with a number of well-off Democratic donors, in the hopes that they’ll give to the fledgling politician’s campaign. Jack speaks frankly, describing that one of the biggest challenges he sees to the political process is the very fact that a hopeful mayor of a Wisconsin town has to travel to DC to get millions of dollars to fight for his campaign. It’s not that this argument is wrong or unbelievable – it’s just not remotely interesting dramatically. No matter how much Cooper tries to sell the speech, the words ring hollow as anything other than a Stewart-esque monologue.

Part of the problem is the choice Stewart makes as writer, in framing the story from Gary’s perspective. While he’s meant to be more politically aligned with the filmmaker’s liberal sensibilities, Gary’s own desires are craven and lazy in how he treats the Midwesterners he encounters. Sometimes, his frustration at the system is legitimate, as in a gag where he’s furious and flustered at Faith’s blithe lie about being born in the Wisconsin town, a lie told while they’re both being interviewed in a CNN roundtable, filmed from two separate cameras placed next to each other to imply physical distance. And sometimes, as when Gary gleefully laughs at how Jack’s impassioned rebuke to the DC donors only inspired them to give him more money, he’s soulless. A character can contain multitudes, but Gary’s multitudes spring up on a whim. Carell does his able best, but the character’s a broad sketch instead of a lived-in person.

More than anything else, Irresistible feels easy and simple, two words that rarely defined Stewart’s political satire on Comedy Central. To the film’s meager credit, the final 20 minutes decidedly do not go down a simple route, with a fairly large number of twists for a purportedly wry satire. The problem is less that the film avoids predictability – the strange final moments would be hard to predict 15 minutes before they occur – and more that they feel like a push and pull between truly scathing humor and something saccharine enough that audiences won’t feel too challenged.

Jon Stewart has appeared on TV periodically in the last five years, typically emerging from beneath the desk of his old cohort Stephen Colbert to riff on the news of the day before vanishing again. When he was on Comedy Central, Stewart managed to effectively balance the searing and the sanctimonious without ever leaning too hard in one direction. His first feature film post-Daily Show should be in his wheelhouse. But even with another of his cohorts trying to sell it, Irresistible is, in fact, the exact opposite. It’s unfocused and utterly forgettable.

/Film Rating: 3 out of 10

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About the Author

Josh Spiegel is a Phoenix-based critic & writer. He's one of the hosts of Mousterpiece Cinema, a podcast about Disney films. He's also written a book of criticism on Pixar, titled Yesterday is Forever: Nostalgia and Pixar Animation Studios.