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Jon Stewart-directed ‘Irresistible’ is hardly that

Dan Webster

"Irresistible" is Jon Stewart's second attempt at directing a movie. Following is the review of the film that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

If comedy is an acquired taste – a fact that every act from Joan Rivers to the cast of “Jackass” proves well enough – then satire is the kind of comedy that has even more of an individual appeal.

This is especially true when politics enters the mix. Not everyone is a fan of the liberal rants of Lewis Black, while the more conservative Dennis Miller has far fewer followers these days than when he was host of “Saturday Night Live’s” Weekend Update.

The fact is, though, most hosts of comedy socio-political shows are liberal-minded, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver and Samantha Bee prominently among them. And it’s no coincidence that all three were part of the Emmy Award-winning crew that worked for Jon Stewart at some time during his 16-year tenure as host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.”

Stewart transformed “The Daily Show” from the standard pop-culture comic-skit format that original host Craig Kilborn ran to a far more politically savvy structure that ended up skewering the news reports of the day – especially when those reports involved conservative voices.

And when Stewart left the show in 2015, leaving the hosting duties to Trevor Noah, he continued exploring his own political interests. He wrote and directed the film “Rosewater,” which starred Gael García Bernal as the Canadian-Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari, who as a Newsweek reporter in 2009 was arrested and jailed on espionage charges by the Iranian government.

Now we have “Irresistible,” which Stewart also wrote and directed, and which stars Steve Carell (another former “Daily Show” cast member) and Rose Byrne as dueling Washington, D.C.-based political strategists. I streamed the film, incidentally, through Amazon Prime.

Carell plays Gary Zimmer, whose career is in a tailspin because of his unsuccessful efforts to elect Hilary Clinton. Byrne’s character, Faith Brewster, plays his main foil, she having worked for the winning Republican side. Gary chances upon a YouTube video that features a citizen of a small-town Wisconsin public city-hall meeting railing against his city council’s adoption of a resolution aimed at immigrants.

And our protagonist sees an opportunity. The citizen in question is Col. Jack Hastings, a retired Marine officer whom Gary pictures as, and I quote, a “Bill Clinton with impulse control.” Most important, Gary sees Col. Jack – played by the always dependable Chris Cooper – as his way back into the world of winning politics.

Of course, to get what he wants, he has to convince Col. Jack to go along. And even when he eventually does, he has to vie with Faith because – wouldn’t you know it? – Republicans overseeing the national scene view the rise of a populist Democrat as a threat, and she has come to stop things before they even get started.

Stewart, obviously depending on an experienced movie-making crew – from veterans such as cinematographer Bobby Bukowski and film editor Jay Rabinowitz – gives us a competently made film. And his cast, especially Cooper, puts in solid work.

But the screenplay he wrote is too scattershot, attempting not just to criticize how U.S. elections are held – especially how they are financed – but also how politicians and the people they hire (especially contractors such as Gary and Faith) come around at election time asking for favors but are usually absent the rest of the time.

And Stewart takes shots – not all of them unjustified – at the media, too, accusing reporters and editors of looking for the big news of the moment, and being the first to air or print it, instead of keying on the larger story and the impact it has on the electorate.

Most of all, it’s the tone of “Irresistible” that feels off. Both Gary and Faith are despicable characters, displaying their D.C.-area arrogance in ways that are actually cartoonish. And even the fact that they eventually get their comeuppance comes in a way that feels like a condescending cliché, as if – yes – the average small-town citizen has both a monopoly on common sense and the intelligence to outwit the proverbial big-city carpetbaggers.

To paraphrase one of Stewart’s old “Daily Show” conventions, that’s hardly a moment of satirical zen.

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