The impact of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart cannot be underestimated. It changed the face of late night television and provided a political education for a generation of young viewers who learned to see the bigger stories about flaws inherent in our media and politics rather than simply pinpointing a handful of ridiculous politicians or scandals. Jon Stewart left The Daily Show in 2015 and while he’s made the occasional appearance in the years since working to get health care protections for 9/11 first responders and making a guest appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, the absence of his wit and insight during this political moment where America has been dragged so low has been noted by his fans. Sadly, those fans will be disappointed as his new film, Irresistible, takes aim at the ridiculousness of the “election economy”, but the narrative film framework doesn’t serve the writer/director well here. Rather than the punchy immediacy of his late night program, Stewart feels late to the party, and while his seething contempt for DC insiders is well taken, the lack of strong jokes makes the film fall into a pedantic screed that the comedian was able to avoid in the past.
Gary Zimmer (Steve Carell) is a campaign advisor who was humiliated when Clinton lost to Trump in 2016. Looking for a way to rebound, he sees a viral video of upstanding colonel Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper) in the small town of Deerlaken, Wisconsin, and sees an opportunity to test some messaging for Democrats in the Midwest where they’ll need to make inroads with rural voters if they’re to retake the White House in 2020. Gary heads to Deerlaken and agrees to manage Jack’s campaign for mayor, but this draws the attention of Gary’s Republican rival, Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne). Gary and Faith turn Deerlaken’s mayoral race into a proxy war for national politics, funneling huge sums of money into their respective campaigns and expanding their operations to win.
More than American politics or the media, Stewart’s target here is what he dubs the “election economy.” Stewart is a smart guy, so he’s able to connect the dots for viewers on how the media, political campaigns, and money are all tied together to perpetuate themselves while actually using politics to help people is an afterthought. There’s a lot of rage in Irresistible, and while Stewart and his writers were able to channel that rage into scathing satire on The Daily Show, here it feels obvious. To be fair, I consume far more politics than a normal person should, and there’s definitely criticism to be leveled at people like me who could do more to work for political change rather than getting caught up in the game of politics. But what Stewart is doing here feels more like stating problems without much of a joke. Perhaps it will provide a political education to some viewers, but I have to imagine that if you’re willing to watch a political comedy from the former head of The Daily Show, you’re probably aware of the arguments he’s making.
And Irresistible has a lot to say about our political moment. It feels like everything that has been building up in Stewart’s mind from January 2017 through 2019 to the point where even the title “Irresistible” is a play on the “Resist” battle cry of liberals. Beyond that, there’s a lot of ground that Stewart wants to cover from the media’s incompetency to the urban/rural divide to the cravenness of Washington, D.C. operatives, but it rarely adds up to anything cohesive other than the corrupting power of money in our politics that only serves to line the coffers of the D.C. elite. It’s a fair point and well made, but as a film, you kind of nod along, and at that point, it feels like Stewart has written an op-ed.
Unfortunately, this medium doesn’t really serve Stewart well. To be fair, it’s not like the day he joined The Daily Show the program instantly became the sensation we know it as today. It took work and effort and years to really hone what they were doing. Perhaps down the line, Stewart will have that mastery over narrative features, but here, the canvas doesn’t really work for him. Scenes are either too dark or overly lit; the pacing is kind of ramshackle; he seems uncertain where to put the emotional beats or if those emotional beats should even be in the movie; and characters are given to monologues and speeches to hammer home the story’s message. In one scene, Jack chastises a bunch of rich New York liberals for how they spend their money, and as a viewer, you nod appreciatively, but there’s really nothing more to do. On The Daily Show, Stewart had the framework to make these points without simply stating his message, but in Irresistible, the satire is either painfully on the nose or quickly forgotten in all the other points Stewart wants to make.
Watching Irresistible, the biggest feeling you have, more than anger at the system, is simply disappointment that one of our sharpest comic and political minds is working in a medium that doesn’t best serve his talents. It’s great that he has an excellent cast of actors at his disposal, but they’re all working for a movie that doesn’t hit the bar we’ve come to expect from Stewart. I understand that he is fed up with the political system and the election economy. We’re all fed up with it, and I get that he was striving to make something that would be about the bigger picture rather than a particular event. But making a movie about how D.C. operatives pander to the heartland without taking rural voters seriously is a tired point that doesn’t move the ball forward. Irresistible is a movie you’ll agree with, and then you’ll forget about it.