In politics, a decade is a lifetime, and Jon Stewart is a relic of another era of political dissection. “The Daily Show” was formative in how it merged modern comedic sensibilities with the political commentary of the day, providing scathing — but not unjust — insight, critique, and a great deal of laughter to a new millennium driven by megalomania and 24-hour news cycles. It was a comedy show first and foremost, but it did influence a younger audience’s understanding of what is happening in our national and global political hemisphere.
Whether “The Daily Show” did more good or harm in how we process and understand the news of today is not for me to decide. But I always found it to be a comfort. Did I always agree with Jon Stewart? Not necessarily, most especially in my more conservative upbringing. But no matter what was happening at the time, Stewart’s show seemed to bring sense to the nonsense, helping usher in some civility and decency in a new era driven by paranoia and disruption in the wake of 9/11.
When Jon Stewart departed “The Daily Show,” leaving Trevor Noah to take his place, the television personality generally kept mum about the current state of the world. Particularly as Donald Trump came into political power, Stewart was off the air, only periodically offering insight or his two cents on his buddy Stephen Colbert’s revamped “The Late Show.” His grander, more even-handed (though certainly left-leaning) approach became damn near antiquated as political commentary became a more barbaric bloodbath sport than ever before.
At a time when everyone has something to say about the White House, even formerly apolitical personalities, Stewart has generally kept quiet. In some respects, that’s maybe for the best, but one can’t help but miss his perspective. Chalk it up to nostalgia or reminiscing a simpler time, but Stewart’s point of view was always candid, insightful, impassionate, but never solely inflammatory. He provided his own bit of zen.
When it was announced that Jon Stewart would return with his sophomore feature film, since titled Irresistible, it made sense that folks assumed it would be the scathing satire that would criticize and bring damnation to the hotheaded personalities who take rotating chairs in the Big House. But Stewart’s new movie, his first directorial effort since 2014’s overlooked Rosewater, may not be what some folks expect. Indeed, this is not a takedown of the narcissistic, hypocritical right. Stewart isn’t here to put some conservative-leaning personalities into their place.
Instead, this new film from Stewart is a pointed look at our flawed two-party system and the ways in which it keeps failing the folks it claims to care about (or frankly doesn’t) through its own warped ideologies. This is a movie that’s more interested in condemning the left rather than the right, blasting the hypocrites who continue to paint its party’s alliances, which might actually do more genuine good, or hopefully inspire more thoughtful discussions, than the more self-satisfied likes of The Hunt’s “aren’t both parties kooky?” bothsidesism, or even the regular, now quite tired comedy bits that clog up the television slots that Stewart once held in his former profession.
Irresistible centers around Gary Zimmer (Steve Carell), a Democratic strategist who, like many left-leaning pundits, found his ego bruised when his party lost the 2016 election. Confidence — or perhaps arrogance — got the better of them. DC insiders like Gary thought their virtues and their sense of moral superiority would win out in the end. Alas, many folks had a crude awakening on that fateful November night. While he’s left to wallow in self-pity, a strategist’s work is never over. There is always another election, another political cycle lurking ahead. It’s time to think about the next election, and they want to focus on the grassroots.
When a viral video from the heartland of Wisconsin shows retired Marine Colonel Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper)’s righteous, quotable plea to the disenfranchised mayor of a right-wing town, Zimmer’s team is on the hunt. Seeing this newborn internet star as a Democratic candidate in the making, Zimmer heads down to Wisconsin to convince Hastings that he has what it takes to run on the Democratic ticket, hoping this will set the party on the winning path throughout the heartland again in Trump’s America. But convincing a quaint, small-town to side with the Democratic message won’t be easy, even if the candidate is someone they know well, which finds Zimmer’s own nemesis Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne) planning her own attack as a bullish strategist for the Republican incumbent mayor.
For a movie about political strategizing, it’s either fitting or ironic that its optics aren’t keenly realized. Irresistible is promoted and marketed as a satire, but that’s not what it really is. It’s sadly another comedy where its biggest flaw is that it’s not very funny. The jokes are often weirdly secondary, opting more for slight bits of observational humor rather than broader, more outlandish jokes — outside of its admittedly wonky opening. And it’s easy to see how so many people will fault the movie for that (because I, too, like to laugh), but there is something to be valued in how Stewart keeps this whole thing from becoming an outrageous farce.
Irresistible opts not to laugh or gawk at its humble, small-town side characters, or really take the piss out of its right-side opponents outside of a few notable scenes. The focus is always intently on examining the left and all their many faults, recognizing that while they might be aiming for the right goals, they’re not always playing on the right field. Folks have already bemoaned the movie for being fairly “condescending” or “accusatory” toward its audience. This is slightly understandable, but it’s also apparent that maybe some folks aren’t willing to look at the film for what it’s trying to do.
Typically, when it comes to writing reviews, I hold off on reading other people’s thoughts until I have written down my own. With Irresistible, I made an exception. Movies that are so pointedly and bluntly political and about “our times” don’t allow much room for bipartisan opinions, and I’m not sure how anyone could put their politics aside while watching Jon Stewart’s new movie. I dipped my toes in the waters to see if the sharks were swimming, and sure enough, they were.
Considering how flimsy the comedy is and how incendiary its final moments become, it’s easy to see why so many critics will tear the film to pieces, claiming that Stewart made a limp, shallow scrutiny of a deeply flawed political wing. It’s easy to write off Jon Stewart’s movie, but I’ll give him some credit. The execution is far from perfect, and his filmmaking isn’t always confident, but Stewart seems to know what he’s doing here, and I don’t think it’s as self-satisfied as some folks might think.
As a filmmaker, Stewart has an acutely sensitive touch. Particularly coming from an era that’s permanently drenched in irony and moral detachment, which is all the more surprising considering how he found success on the same station that made “South Park” one of the biggest facets of pop culture in the past 30 years, this is a distinction that separates Stewart from his peers — even today.
On “The Daily Show,” Stewart wasn’t always kind or clean-mouthed or without moments of self-satisfied moral indignation, but he did care. There was a gentle sense of humanity to Stewart’s brand of observational political-social commentary that (at least for me) never rang as insincere. While the moments where he yelled or screamed or gave some two-bit politician a third asshole are the clips that circulate on YouTube, Stewart was more often defined by his moments of decency, when he wanted the nation to reconcile before the tear became ever deeper. It’s fair to say that this outlook on politics is naïve or short-sighted, and that wouldn’t necessarily be false. But that mindset informs the modus operandi for Irresistible more so than the broader and perhaps even nastier Veep-esque satire that some folks might’ve envisioned his second film to be.
Is it smug? Sure. Does it only attack the surface, producing a somewhat superficial look at what is clearly a much deeper issue? For sure. But is it condescending? Maybe not as much as people make it out to be. You can fault Stewart however you want. He’s not without blame, and I don’t think this movie is undeserving of criticism. But this film made me think. And it challenged me. And it made me ponder ideas that go beyond “Trump bad, liberals good.”
Stewart is an incredibly perceptive person, and while you might not always agree with his points (and nobody should be obligated to), it seems unwarranted to assume that he doesn’t have a clear-eyed focus on what he’s saying with his film. Fault the execution if you want, but Stewart knows what he wants to say here and he’s not afraid to say it, even if it gets a little too preachy by the finale.
It’s fitting that people expected more from Stewart than what he set out to deliver. Irresistible is a modest effort, asking for reflection rather than upheaval. As our political landscape grows more fervently foul, it’s expected and understandable that a film like this won’t make much of a dent. It’ll come and go, aging rather gracelessly and becoming a product of its ill-gotten time.
In about 10 or 15 years, people might look at it the same way we’d look at half-hearted George W. Bush-era political comedies like Swing Vote or American Dreamz. But Irresistible knows its audience, and it knows what it needs to say to them right now, providing a flawed but overall worthwhile dramedy with some winning performances from Chris Cooper and Mackenzie Davis, along with a nice sense of location and worthwhile insights into a political party that needs to do better if it actually wants to consider itself progressive. But hey, those are just my two cents.
Will Ashton is a Pop Culture writer for CinemaBlend and one of the co-hosts of Cinemaholics. He also co-hosts the It Ain’t Ogre ‘Til It’s Ogre podcast and considers himself a “Garfield Enthusiast.” For now.