Jon Stewart’s new film, “Irresistible,” opens with a sequence knitting together sound bites of the 2016 presidential debates and footage of a strongman taking a cannonball to the gut before Bob Seger’s “Still the Same” plays over photos of small-town campaign stops. A title card reading “Rural America, Heartland, U.S.A.” tells us where this tale takes place, so, as you can see, this political “comedy” about (checks notes) campaign finance reform is extremely subtle and not condescending in any way. That’s sarcasm. It’s extremely condescending and unrelentingly cynical, before it rips the rug out from under the audience at the 11th hour, requiring a documentary-style explainer during the credits to clear up what the heck just happened.
It’s ironic that the only crumb of anything worthwhile in “Irresistible” is this 30 seconds of documentary footage, where we can hear Stewart’s voice from behind the camera, questioning a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission on the plausibility of his script. It makes you wonder why Stewart didn’t just make a documentary, rather than subjecting us to this breathtakingly bad and out-of-touch political humor, seemingly written by an artificial intelligence that was fed a steady diet of cable news and “Pod Save America.”
The plot concerns a small town in Wisconsin, Deerlaken, where a local farmer, Col. Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper), goes viral after a video of his stirring speech in defense of immigrants rights at a city council meeting is posted to the web. Soon, the establishment vultures swoop in to take advantage of this unicorn: an older white male military vet with seemingly progressive values. With hopes of activating rural voters to vote blue, in jets Dem strategist Gary Zimmer (Steve Carell), a right-wing radio host’s dream of the “liberal elite,” with his penchant for electric cars, NPR and “haricot verts.” Gary wants Jack to run for mayor and offers to run his campaign. When the Republicans get wind of it, they send in their Barbie bot Faith (Rose Byrne), who honestly behaves like an alien pretending to be a Fox News anchor. Gary and Faith turn Deerlaken into the arena for their political bloodsport, undergirded by a frisson of truly disturbing sexual tension.
It seems Stewart has set his sights on being the American Armando Iannucci, the brilliant British political satirist behind “Veep” and “In the Loop.” Perhaps it requires an outsider’s perspective to truly see what makes American politics ridiculous, and “Veep” managed to pull off that barbed insight because no one was safe. In “Irresistible” (a title seemingly chosen only for the fact that “resist” is in the middle of it), Stewart errs on the side of safe, especially with the denizens of Deerlaken. He ends up neutering the whole endeavor, leaving Gary out to dry, but not before we are forced to spend the duration of the film with this unlikable, unrepentant jerk. Is the film condescending, or is Gary? It’s hard to tell when he’s the protagonist whose perspective we share, down to the gooey slow-mo glances with which he appraises Jack’s daughter, Diana (Mackenzie Davis).
With “Irresistible,” Stewart wants to have his blueberry streusel and eat it too, attempting to craft “biting” commentary with no teeth, that patronizes but refuses to offend, and stumbles over itself trying to be both snarky and sincere, a mode that Stewart easily toggled between on “The Daily Show.” But you just can’t do both at the same time, as he tries to here. He bogs down his talented cast with a bewildering plot, tired tropes and embarrassing dialogue. This one, well, it’s simply resistible.
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