Irresistible (2020)

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 06/25/20 01:07:00

"Not Quite."
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

When Jon Stewart made his big-screen debut as a writer-director with “Rosewater” (2015), it surprised many observers who went into presumably expecting a cinematic variation of the kind of sardonic political humor that he became famous for on television with “The Daily Show” and discovered that it was a an earnest and serious-minded true-life drama about the ordeal of Maziar Bahari, an Iranian journalist who was arrested and brutally interrogated for 118 days on suspicion of being a spy based on a comedic interview he did for a 2009 “Daily Show” segment. The resulting film was uneven at times but it was made with a genuine sense of anger and earnestness, not to mention the unmistakable feeling that this was a story that, perhaps out of guilt, he was absolutely compelled to make. However, my guess is that his fans felt a sense of relief when it was announced that his follow-up film would be the kind of thing that they were presumably hoping to see from him the first time around—a straightforward satire of the current American political scene that would, as a bonus, reunite him with his former TV colleague Steve Carrell for good measure. Yes, “Irresistible” will definitely remind one of the old days of “The Daily Show”—unfortunately, the days in question are the ones when Craig Kilborn ruled the roost and the humor was laced with a certain unmistakable smugness. The result is the kind of film that Stewart himself might have righteously smoked on his show for pulling its punches and favoring humor that is more toothless than biting.

Following in the grand cinematic footsteps of Michael Moore and Dinesh D’Souza, the film opens with a montage of footage of the 2016 presidential campaign trail (with Bob Seger’s “Still the Same” playing on the soundtrack) culminating in the surprise victory by Donald Trump that sent countless numbers of Democratic strategists into states of near-catatonia. One of those is Gary Zimmer (Carrell), who is knocked for a loop that his seemingly perfect candidate could somehow lose to an unhinged nutball—he isn’t even angry so much as he is confused that such a thing could have happened, especially on his watch. Nevertheless, politics is a demanding mistress and a few months later, he is ready to go once again when a video from a council meeting in the small town of Deerlaken, Wisconsin that has gone viral comes to his attention. In it, Colonel Jack Hastings, a former Marine and current dairy farmer, rails against the mayor, Braun (Brent Sexton), when he tries to pass a motion that will hurt the undocumented workers of the economically suffering town. To most people, Jack seems like a decent guy who is just doing what is right but to Gary, he is the mother lode—someone who sounds like a liberal (or a reasonable facsimile of such) but comes across as someone developed in a GOP genetics lab. If someone like him could run for office—an upcoming mayoral race, for example—as a Democrat and win, it could be the breakthrough that Gary needs to revitalize his career.

Gary quickly sets off for Deerlaken and convinces Jack and his daughter, Diana (Mackenzie Davis), to run for mayor and his efforts are noticed by the media as campaign contributions start pouring in. The campaign is also noticed by the Republicans and soon they send in their own array of high-priced advisers led by Faith (Rose Byrne), who is Gary’s nemesis of long standing. Before long, millions and millions of dollars are flowing in and what might have once been an unheralded small-town election becomes the focus of a nation keen to see in which direction the political winds are about to blow. To Gary’s eyes, the excessiveness is purely the fault of Faith, who he is convinced will stoop to any level in order to secure victory for her client and could care less about anything else. Of course, as Diana points out to him, on more than one occasion, Gary is himself guilty of pretty much the same thing but can no longer recognize his own sense of condescension towards anyone who doesn’t conform to the liberal elite standards that he is ostensibly trying to break away from in the first place.

From the start, it is relatively easy to discern what Stewart’s intentions are. He is trying to take the kind of politely populist narratives that filmmakers like Frank Capra used to make back in the day—stories that were “political” in nature but in a manner that allowed viewers of all stripes to embrace the ultimately idealistic notions being espoused—and fuse it to a more modern and hard-hitting sensibility that wants to expose the specific ways in which the current political landscape has been corrupted beyond recognition. And yet, while Stewart takes pains to call out both Democrats and Republicans for their misdeeds and does not shy away from invoking real names and institutions along the way, the jabs he takes turn out to be surprisingly weak. Throughout the film, both Gary and Faith are portrayed as eager participants in a never-ending game in which actual issues and solutions to the problems of the day are constantly being cast aside in the race to accumulate enough money and airtime to justify their continued existence. That is a noble enough sentiment but by focusing the story along those lines, it devolves into a fairly limp both-sides-do-it argument that curiously seems to go out of its way to make any specific and discernible political statement of its own. Under normal circumstances, this might have been forgivable but considering the political climate of the last couple of years, to shy away from taking any real stand feels more than a little disingenuous.

Instead, Stewart is more concerned in propelling his narrative to the final scenes where he drops the big dramatic twist that is meant to send viewers out talking about the political process and how easily it can be manipulated. Watching this development unfold, you get the sense that Stewart came up with the ending first and then used the rest of the screenplay as little more than a delivery system for that particular insight. The twist is amusing, I grant you, but by turning up only at the end, it cannot help but come across as a plot device more than anything else. This is particularly frustrating because this development contains some provocative ideas that deserve to be explored at length rather than tossed off as a mere punchline. To do that, however, might have required Stewart to make some kind of actual stand with his story but he strangely seems more comfortable here with a storyline that is oftentimes devoid of real bite or substance and which too often goes for the easy laughs—the most groan-worthy of which are based around an aging liberal billionaire donor (Bill Irwin) who has transformed himself into an octogenarian Robocop, a character who exists for no other reason than to supply a few sight gags.

“Irresistible” is not without its good points—some of the banter between Carrell and Byrne is amusing, the performances from Cooper and Davis are quite good and there are some very funny lines of dialogue here and there. And yet, the rest of the is a strangely shallow affair that never quite works up the necessary head of steam required to put it over the top, either as comedy or as political commentary. The best political comedies—my list Preston Sturges’ “The Great McGinty” (1940), Michael Ritchie’s “The Candidate” (1972), Robert Altman’s “Tanner ’88” (1988), Tim Robbins’ “Bob Roberts” (1992), Barry Levinson’s “Wag the Dog” (1997) and Warren Beatty’s “Bulworth” (1998)—all contain trenchant insights about the political process of their times but they also remembered to include strong and focused stories and jokes that would continue to land long after their initial release. By comparison, Stewart has given us the equivalent of a campaign t-shirt—it is bright and clean and contains an insight or two but is too threadbare for its own good and is eventually destined to be tossed into the back of a closet and forgotten.

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