“Irresistible” is the second film written and directed by Jon Stewart, but unlike the first, the deadly serious and surprisingly accomplished true-life Iranian prison drama “Rosewater” (2014), this one comes straight out of Stewart’s satirical-political wheelhouse. Set shortly after the 2016 presidential election, it’s a close-to-the-bone tall tale — slightly exaggerated but still basically plausible — of what happens when America’s two ruling political parties descend upon the rural heartland of Deerlaken, Wisconsin, to take over a small-town election for mayor.
At the center of the movie is a cynical sharpie of a campaign consultant, Gary Zimmer (Steve Carell), who combines the philosophy of a liberal, the high-maintenance fussiness of an East Coast lifestyle elitist, and the do-what-it-takes amorality of a corporate sociopath. He’s just coming off his time as “the grand consigliere” of Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential bid, and like most Democrats he’s in a slight state of shock at Donald Trump’s victory. But he’s enough of an image-politics brat to realize that his party, in order to regain power, needs a new kind of electoral star.
He thinks he spies that candidate when he catches a viral YouTube video of Col. Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper), a Marine veteran and Midwestern farmer — a guy as Trump Country as you can get — who stands up at a town-council meeting and accuses the mayor of Deerlaken of screwing over the local immigrant community. Gary takes one look at Jack and sees a heartland conservative…with the soul of a liberal! Or as Gary puts it, “A church-going Bernie Sanders with better bone density.” So he convinces Jack to run for mayor — and he marshals major party resources to back him, all with the hope of turning the national spotlight on a new brand of Democratic winner.
In outline, “Irresistible” is a fusion of “The Candidate,” “Wag the Dog,” “Green Acres,” a Preston Sturges comedy like “Hail the Conquering Hero,” and one of those shrewdly funny and didactic monologues from Stewart’s “Daily Show” days in which (in this case) he holds forth on all the sicknesses that ail the American body politic. In “Irresistible,” those include the takeover of politics by big money; the over-the-top fraudulence of campaign TV advertising; the focus-grouping and market-testing of every last voter demographic and policy idea; and the sound-bite candidates who are sold to the public like products. In short, “Irresistible” takes a gleeful, jocular look at the killing of electoral democracy by the twin demons of money and packaging.
All of which may inspire you to ask: So what else is new?
In theory, “Irresistible” is clever and scathingly illuminating, kind of like the way (in theory) that “Bob Roberts” was back in 1992. In practice, however, the film depends on reveling in most of the clichés and stereotypes it says it’s against. When Gary first shows up in Deerlaken, he goes to the local bar, the Hosfrau, and orders “a Bud and a burger,” as if that would mark him as a manly regular guy. (In truth, he favors caprese salads on his private-jet rides.) Jack’s longtime rival is Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne), a Republican operative in killer pumps who shows up to manage the campaign of the incumbent, Mayor Braun (Brent Sexton). She’s as ruthless as Gary is, but their face-offs — fueled, of course, by hate-on sexual tension — have the glib proscribed feel of something out of “The Office.”
The rest of the movie does, too. In “Rosewater,” Stewart proved that he could summon a convincing dramatic atmosphere, but in “Irresistible” there’s no discovery to the film’s broad and rather knee-jerk comic attitude. The tone is overly obvious yet pretend subtle, with pauses that keep nudging you in the ribs. (It’s as if Harold Pinter wrote a sitcom.)
More than that, the film keeps telling us what to think. As the campaign ratchets itself up from a homespun political contest to a fake-news war, Stewart flings potshots at a great many targets, and a handful of them hit: a skewering of Fox News in which the right-wing jabs sound as laughably scripted as some of them actually are; a commercial in which Jack fires off a machine gun like Rambo, then turns to the camera to say “I’m Jack Hastings and I approved this message”; a rueful moment when Gary concedes that “It’s not politics anymore — it’s just math.” Yet the notion that Gary has reduced “idealism” to a kind of opportunistic political app is itself, in “Irresistible,” a message that gets reduced to an app. It’s a comedy of signifiers that keeps pointing its finger at the superficiality of signifiers.
Near the end, there’s a big twist that gives everyone their just desserts and the American campaign system a kick in the pants. Stewart’s message: Our politics is being toxified — strangled — by money. And who would disagree? Yet you could also look at the politics of today and say that it’s not that simple — that the Republicans have become the party of authoritarianism, and that the Democrats are undergoing an identity crisis of values that extends far beyond the corruptions of money. “Irresistible” scores points yet feels behind the curve. You wish it were a bold satirical bulletin, or maybe just Stewart’s pricelessly amusing version of a Christopher Guest movie. Instead, the film is a lot like a politician: It makes a big show of leading the viewer, but without rocking the boat.