The stumbling block for political satire is that it’s almost always partisan — which is great if it flatters your views, and grating if it doesn’t. But not for Jon Stewart. In his first writing-directing gig since 2014’s docudrama Rosewater, the former late-night fixture ingeniously makes it impossible to take sides … since both sides totally suck. As host of The Daily Show between 1999 and 2015, Stewart knew that the only way to deal with the toxic mix of politics, media, and money afflicting the body politic was to resist. Or at least to see it as something other than the inevitable result of an artificially engineered war between the left and the right. His target isn’t one political party. It’s passivity.
“Fuck you, America.” Those are among the first words spoken by Gary Zimmer, the shithead Democratic strategist sensationally played by Steve Carell, just as the 2016 election announces its “winner.” We’re miles away from the cockeyed optimism in the films of Frank Capra (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Meet John Doe), but no way is Stewart writing off American resilience. In fact, he’s counting on it. Gary is loosely modeled on Bob Shrum, the highly paid adviser in a string of losing presidential campaigns, from Michael Dukakis to Al Gore. As Irresistible begins, Gary is looking for his ticket “back into the Forbidden City” of presidential politics.
His unlikely vehicle? A Republican widower farmer and retired Marine colonel named Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper), who’s thinking of running for mayor of nowhere Deerlaken, in the swing state of Wisconsin. What gets Gary’s attention is a video of the Colonel busting the chops of Town Hall reactionaries for denying health benefits to undocumented immigrants. Gary’s greedy eyes glow at the sight of this square-jawed paragon of Americana who looks conservative but talks progressive. “He’s a Democrat,” says Gary to his seen-it-all staff, led by Kurt (Topher Grace). “He just doesn’t know it yet.”
So off goes city-slicker Gary to Deerlaken to use the Colonel as raw clay in his plan for national domination. There are jokes aimed at D.C. Gary, as the locals dub him, after he orders a Bud in a Miller town and patronizes the rubes. But the Colonel is no easy mark. He loves Deerlaken, which Stewart and the keenly observant cinematographer Bobby Bukowski take pains to portray as the new America of scarce jobs, closed shops, financial hardships, and, in Deerlaken’s case, a population reduced from 15,000 to 5,000 after the military base closed. That authenticity pays dividends as Gary’s campaigning — he enlists the Colonel’s attractive daughter, Diana (Mackenzie Davis,) to spearhead a fundraising drive — touches a chord for voters.
The comedy turns broader when the Republican National Committee sends in its closer, Faith Brewster (the devilishly deadpan Rose Byrne), to make sure incumbent Mayor Braun (Brent Sexton) wins re-election and the Colonel goes back to the farm. Carell and Byrne are dynamite as these dueling political assassins, who insist that any lie becomes truth if you say it “repeatedly, doggedly, and with unearned confidence.” The closest Irresistible comes to a Capra-esque hero is the Colonel, and the reliably superb Cooper plays him close to the vest and with seemingly incorruptible integrity. His big moment comes when Gary takes him to New York to squeeze some cash out of Manhattan elites, and the big man — Gary calls him “Bill Clinton with impulse control” — tells the crowd that their money is not the solution but the problem. Naturally, the guilty, liberal, self-flagellating narcissists eat it up.
Crazy? Hardly. The alleged absurdities of this political satire are not far off from the 2017 special congressional election for Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District, where both parties spent more than $55 million to score a symbolic victory to bolster their own power and profit incentives. Stewart keeps the action percolating with a large cast of characters that suggests another key influence on him is Preston Sturges, the screwball-comedy auteur who filled his films — think Sullivan’s Travels and Hail the Conquering Hero — with a rotating stock company of expert character actors. He’s not on that level, at least not yet. But he’s got the right idea. And Stewart’s work as a director of actors is exemplary. Sexton is a mayor who’s not so easy to figure; Will Sasso and Will McLaughlin are Deerlaken cronies who know the difference between a simile and metaphor; and Natasha Lyonne is an exorbitantly compensated computer genius who Gary brings in to dig up dirt no one knew existed.
What Stewart is really asking in Irresistible is: In what world is it OK for us to ignore the special interests that have hijacked our electoral process for fun and profit while the people they steal from go without? Stewart is rigorously unsentimental in his approach. He fails to provide backstories for Gary and Faith because their soullessness is what makes them functional — and infectious. But what’s our excuse? In a twist ending, Stewart leaves us wondering if gaming the system is preferable to changing it. Can a political satire that dances on the border between silly and profound really make us take off the blinders, even for a few hours? It’s available on demand starting June 26th. Proceed accordingly.