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Jon Stewart is an incredibly smart person. Though he long argued that he should be always be seen as a comedian first, he spent years delivering some of the most insightful commentary on television, capitalizing on his maintained outsider status to critique both the media and political atmosphere at large with sharp intelligence and biting wit. With solely that in mind, his latest effort as a writer/director, the new comedy Irresistible, should be met with great anticipation. After all, after his 2014 debut, the dramatic thriller Rosewater, the feature is a return for the filmmaker to the tone for which he is best known.
Unfortunately, as a vehicle for the message Jon Stewart wants to get across with the movie, it equates to sticking a high performance engine built for a Maserati underneath the hood of a faux-wood-paneled minivan.
Centering on a small town that winds up being the epicenter of a battle between two bullish, hot shot campaign strategists, the film definitely has something to say about the way modern elections are run in America, and effectively drives home that point before the credits are ready to roll… but the majority of that lives in the third act, and there’s unfortunately not a great deal of entertainment value to be found prior to all that. The movie primarily subsists on stale humor and demanded leaps in logic to explain character motivation up until it’s ready to showcase its big ideas, and while those big ideas are ultimately interesting enough to elevate Irresistible to being “fine,” your larger expectations won’t be met.
Steve Carell, Stewart’s former Daily Show cohort, stars as Gary Zimmer, a victory-obsessed, high-level political junkie feverishly in pursuit of a candidate who could become the next big voice of the Democratic party – most notably as an extension of the loss experienced during the 2016 presidential campaign. His attention is drawn to a video online featuring a farmer/veteran (Chris Cooper) from a small Wisconsin town delivering an impassioned speech to a city council in defense of immigrants, and he immediately jumps into action thinking that he has found a man who, despite lacking any kind of political background, could represent the future of the Democrats (it’s weirdly never acknowledged that this is kind of a strange notion given that the actor in the role is turning 69 in 2020).
Gary travels to Wisconsin in the aim of getting this man, Jack Hastings, to campaign in the upcoming mayoral election, and while his initial plan is to simply provide resources to the effort, that changes when Jack says that he will only run if Gary serves as his campaign manager. He reluctantly agrees, as he is forced to make a major personal adjustment to small-town life, but a fire is lit underneath him when his rival, Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne), having gotten wind of Gary’s activities, arrives on the scene to support the opposition, incumbent Mayor Braun (Brent Sexton). Washington tactics slowly ensconce the little burg as more and more money is poured into the race, the two strategists employing their entire playbooks in attempts to one-up the other.
Irresistible struggles to find its comedic voice, and uses a lot of treaded-over material.
To its credit, Irresistible is a movie that has a statement to make about the status of the entire electoral system in America, and plays no favorites when it comes to political parties, but as modern as it works to be it doesn’t have much fresh material when it comes to either the day-to-day of campaigning or “urbanite travels to farmland” shtick. In the case of the former there’s nothing that we haven’t seen from movies like Jay Roach’s The Campaign or David Gordon Green’s Our Brand Is Crisis (not to mention Veep or Parks & Recreation on the television side), and the latter weirdly winds up draining the film of any likable characters.
You definitely expect a lot more from Steve Carell and Rose Byrne.
Despite being the protagonist, Gary is fully intended to be an offensive character (possessing no real values and only working to aid his own ego), and while that’s not inherently a bad approach for a comedy, the problem is that Steve Carell’s performance doesn’t get the laughs necessary to pull it off, and there is an unintended side effect in that the negativity rubs off on characters who are meant to be much more relatable. Jack Hastings and his daughter (played by Mackenzie Davis) are presented as reasonable, good people, but that leads you to spend the majority of Irresistible wondering why they are willing to put up with so much of Gary’s assholery – particularly because Jack never demonstrates any kind of real enthusiasm that suggests he is getting anything meaningful out of the relationship.
Getting the shortest end of the stick of all is Rose Byrne, who simply isn’t given enough to do despite her significant role in the plot. Faith Brewster isn’t so much a character as she is a plot device/random profanity-laced insult generator. Her interactions with Gary play like bits included solely to showcase the callousness and closed-door attitude of Washington rather than coming from any kind of real place, and all of the actions she takes don’t come from any kind of personal motivation, but instead just to create a conflict that moves the story forward. Making things worse is that while there is a lot in the third act that justifies elements of the first two, that doesn’t include anything involving Faith.
Irresistible's ending mends a number of issues, but doesn’t totally fix the film.
Because this is a spoiler-free forum, discussing the best parts of Irresistible is a challenge simply because all of its best parts are reserved for its conclusion – which is legitimately clever and unpredictable. Certain elements that appear to be odd issues throughout the film, including some of those mentioned above, are made clearer by the revelations, and while the problems aren’t totally resolved, the greater understanding of why things play out the way they do makes a hell of a lot more sense. It’s possible that knowing how the movie ends winds up having the effect of further improving how everything plays on rewatch rather than just in retrospect, but I can’t say I’m overly excited to quickly revisit.
Irresistible is a strange watch, and it could result in some very divisive reactions – with those like me who see the film breaking even in quality as a result of its twist flanked by those who don’t think anything is justified at all, and those who absolutely love it and find that it makes everything click. At the very least the hope can be that it’s strictly an argument about the quality of the movie, and that at least everyone can agree about its messages regarding election reform.