Considering our place in the world currently, many of the themes and topics on display in Irresistible, the latest film from writer/director Jon Stewart, seem alarmingly dated and not nearly as urgent as what we’re living through in real time. If Stewart hadn’t built his reputation as a comedian who commented on the news practically as it was unfolding (via “The Daily Show”), this may not seem like a big deal. But if a film about dirty campaigning, shady campaign financing, and political strategists molding both the perfect candidate and the messages of an election don’t seem particularly pertinent right now, give it a couple of months and see how you feel then.
Irresistible begins with Republican farmer and retired Marine colonel Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper) giving an impassioned speech at a town hall meeting, only the thing he’s talking about is what his small Wisconsin town should do about the immigrant population, and he’s making a very strong statement about how that part of the town’s residents add value to the community and that they should be respected and protected. A clandestinely shot video of his plea goes viral and catches the attention of Gary Zimmer (Steve Carell), a D.C. Democratic political strategist who is convinced he’s just seen the new face of Democrats, one who embraces old-fashioned values without being racist or exclusionary in the process. Zimmer offers to run the campaign to get Hastings elected mayor of the town just to see if he can, a move that sparks interest with other political maneuverers nationwide, including his Republican nemesis, Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne).
Col. Hastings just wants people to be good to each other, and while Zimmer grooms him, he looks to his grown daughter Diana (Mackenzie Davis) for any type of spiritual guidance while he slowly sells his soul. Unlike his previous film (2015’s docudrama Rosewater), filmmaker Stewart is actually going for laughs while also telling a knowing and clever story. The problem is that the bigger moments don’t often deliver big laughs, though if you look at the smaller details, you might actually get a chuckle or two.
The story is more or less set in the real world (the election itself is based on a 2017 special congressional contest for Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District), so Stewart includes cable news anchors for CNN, CNBC and Fox News, all played by the same actress in different wigs and all named Brooke. There’s also a moment during two street fairs featuring booths from various special interest groups, including the NRA, all eager to sign up new members until a group of black men approaches the table. I wish moments like this had been the centerpiece of the film rather than a series of side gags.
There are some interesting and quietly smart supporting performances from the likes of Brent Sexton as the long-serving incumbent mayor and Will Sasso as one of the townspeople, who is surprisingly savvy in the ways of politics. The film does have a curious sequence in which Zimmer takes the colonel to New York to meet some of his rich, liberal friends for a campaign finance fundraiser. The crowd there is so happy that Hastings has seemingly come over to “their side” that they don’t even question why. And when he essentially tells them in a speech that they and their money are part of the problem with politics today, they applaud him and practically throw millions of dollars into his coffers, which handily sets up the twist at the end of the movie. Yes, Irresistible has a twist.
Nearly everything about Stewart’s approach to this subject feels like soft-pedaling. I wouldn’t call it toothless, as some have, but the teeth in question aren’t especially sharp. And as much as I think the filmmaker’s portrayal of the current political system of money and image over substance and issues is dead on, it’s hardly revelatory—especially for a guy who has spent so much of his career peeling back the facades of politicians and parties to show us what they’re really made of. The film is more a missed opportunity than an outright failure or disappointment. The lead actors are really strong, although I wish Byrne’s character’s shallowness had been given a bit more motivation. Byrne can be so funny with the right material, and here she seems severely underutilized. With prices for many of these VOD offerings at the $20 mark (because this film was absolutely destined for theaters), the decision to rent it has become as much a financial decision as one about quality. So what I can tell you is that the quality of Irresistible is hit and miss, and not nearly as funny or intelligent as the person who created it.
The film is available beginning Friday on most on-demand platforms.
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