Political satire is hard under ordinary circumstances, so it’s darn near impossible in our current bonkers climate. Anything that seems heightened or outlandish is almost instantly outdated because of our government’s real-world insanity.
That’s one of the reasons HBO’s “Veep” had to call it quits and it’s one of several contributing factors to the hit-or-miss nature of Steve Carell’s recent Netflix comedy “Space Force.” (That series even had an astonishing joke about Congress eliminating the post office. It was written as an absurd exaggeration, except the nation actually debated that before the episode aired.)
Speaking of Carell, that situation seems to be happening to him a lot these days. He finds himself in a similar position as the star of “Irresistible,” the new political comedy written and directed by Jon Stewart (beloved former host of “The Daily Show”), which also feels too quaint for the garbage fire that is 2020.
Carell plays Gary Zimmer, a Democratic political consultant looking to rebuild his credibility after his role in Hillary Clinton’s shocking 2016 loss. He spies just such an opportunity when he sees a viral video of retired Marine colonel Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper) standing up for immigrants in his small Wisconsin town. Zimmer packs a bag and heads for the Midwest, where he tries to convince Hastings to run for mayor against a popular incumbent (Brent Sexton).
Although reluctant at first, Hastings comes around after some encouragement from his daughter Diana (Mackenzie Davis). In the days that follow, he goes from longshot to actual contender, garnering national headlines and scaring the Republican party enough for them to send in a cutthroat operative (Rose Byrne). Since top officials are now involved on both sides, it attracts the interest of cable news networks that turn the formerly sleepy, small-town mayoral race into a media circus.
If the plot of “Irresistible” sounds familiar to people in the metro Atlanta area, there’s a good reason. Stewart uses the crazy circumstances surrounding the 2017 special election that pitted Jon Ossoff against Karen Handel as a jumping off point for his modern fable. He’s got a lot to say about the cynicism of special interests and operatives who swooped in, pumped untold millions of dollars into a comparatively insignificant race, and declared it a bellwether moment for the future of the country.
Stewart’s heart is in the right place, but the film itself is disappointing despite solid performances and a message that’s tough to argue with. The comedian-turned-national conscience views Carell’s and Byrne’s characters as everything wrong with modern politics, ignoring what’s actually important to everyday Americans in favor of what matters to groupthink inside the Washington, D.C. bubble.
“Irresistible” paints Carell’s character as well-meaning yet condescending, and not as smart as he thinks. Although probably not Stewart’s intention, that’s exactly how the movie comes off too. There’s a particularly telling scene where Hastings travels with Zimmer to New York City to beg the liberal elite for campaign funds, but he ends up telling them they’re exactly what’s wrong with modern politics. It’s the entire movie in a nutshell, but Stewart doesn’t realize he’s what Cooper’s character is railing against.
The filmmaker has gotten rusty since he stepped away from “The Daily Show.” He’s crafted a story whose message is basically 90 minutes of “both sides suck”: not exactly an earth-shattering revelation. I doubt anyone would disagree, no matter their personal politics. But then he throws in a last-minute development that attempts to hone that clichéd moral into a populist victory. Instead, he kind of makes it feel like the movie was a big waste of time.
Fortunately, the killer cast elevates the material with terrific performances. Carell and Cooper can do this stuff in their sleep, while Davis takes what initially seems like a thankless role and does something interesting with it. But, as always, Rose Byrne is the MVP. Her character is unapologetic about who she is and why that’s politically and morally toxic. But, in a perverse way, that upfront nature makes her more noble than Carell’s character.
“Irresistible” is a weird filmmaking progression for Stewart. He took a big swing with “Rosewater,” his directorial debut. It didn’t do well at the box office, but it was an earnest story with a clear message. Strangely enough, he followed it up with what feels like a spiritual sequel to the 2008 Kevin Costner comedy “Swing Vote.” I literally forgot that movie existed until halfway through this one, which is probably not a great sign.
“Irresistible” is rated R for language including sexual references.