When Jon Stewart announced his retirement from hosting The Daily Show in February 2015 — a very long 10 years ago, relatively speaking — a certain you-know-who’s presidential bid remained but a speculative whisper. During Stewart’s last stretch that August, Louis C.K. joined Stewart as his final guest — told you it was a very long relative 10 years — and Stewart’s lifelong hero Bruce Springsteen played the host off. By then, the aforementioned bid was official but still a cold-open punchline — a ridiculous notion to wave off before some mainstream-milquetoast man to be named later seized the GOP nomination.
Only after Stewart decamped did all of this mutate into a roaring Rorschach test to reveal how someone saw America and, 15 months after Stewart’s sign-off, a time-flattening reality whose repercussions have become one giant, weary gesture at everything. Short of a brief 2016 Twitter fracas during which Stewart called this candidate Fuckface Von Clownstick, these two never engaged in gladiatorial combat. One might say Stewart not only got out while the getting was good but got out while getting was even still possible — at least with the wink-nudge naughtiness that was his stock-in-trade.
Stewart has largely kept a low profile since 2015 but has resurfaced with Irresistible — a feature-length political satire that he wrote and directed and which gives you the feeling that he will volley some voluminous vitriol at Von Clownstick. Or so it would seem, given that person’s invocation in a prologue and a blink-and-miss repeat of the Clownstick gag later. But Irresistible instead purports to stride down the aisle and pop balloons on both sides. Even then, it shows up with a dull blade run along a whetstone of platitudes, trailer-made jokes about cow asses and horse’s-ass politicos, gags from Vice that Stewart liked so much he cribs them twice, and a last-act twist so random that it necessitates a credit-cookie interview with a real-world expert to clarify. Much harder to explain? A movie this unfunny coming from Stewart. Once so entertainingly and inspiringly outraged by heavyweight rot that couldn’t possibly do more to reveal itself, Stewart feels like he’s pulling punches on a sparring partner.
Indeed, Irresistible — only titled as such to highlight RESIST as one of its many empty gestures — telegraphs how ill-equipped it will be from its initial moments, which are slick, professional and perilously toothless. An onscreen graphic tells us we’re witnessing the dusk of another day in “RURAL AMERICA … HEARTLAND, USA” and then, not a minute later, the film informs us that we are actually in Wisconsin. To just say that outright would sheathe the broad brush with which Stewart tries to paint middle America. Like a woeful Welcome to Mooseport or so-so Swing Vote before it, but with an R-rating for colorful language and sex talk, Irresistible loses the forest for the trees in its mashup of micro- and macro-level politics.
Steve Carell plays Gary Zimmer, a hot-shot Democratic political strategist whose stock took a hit after losing the sure-fire 2016 presidential election. Zimmer is invigorated, though, after a staffer shows him a viral video from Deerlaken, Wisconsin, in which retired Marine Colonel Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper) stands up against an overly restrictive voter ID law. Deerlaken has been stripped of nearly everything except waning pride and waxing prejudice, it would seem. So Zimmer persuades his Democratic National Convention bosses to let him road-test a national message in Deerlaken about a “redder shade of blue” and encourage Hastings to run as a Democratic challenger to Deerlaken’s Republican mayor.
“He’s Bill Clinton with better impulse control,” Zimmer says of Hastings. “A churchgoing Bernie Sanders with better bone density.”
Hastings agrees to the candidacy but only if Zimmer stays to manage the campaign himself. Beyond the idea that there would otherwise be no movie, it’s impossible to surmise just why Zimmer sticks around. The character seems too disingenuous to really believe in Hastings’ ethos — such as it is for Cooper, who guns the soft-spoken gear he finds early on — and not desperate enough to play only one last card. We learn nothing about Zimmer before his Wisconsin odyssey beyond a Tesla key fob on his side table, an Alan Dershowitz book on his shelf (whoopsie!) and a gag about how smart devices are actually stupid, amirite?
It’s also unclear how Zimmer remains in any sort of driver’s seat after his disastrous 2016, in what way his Deerlaken plan would be his path back to the big leagues, or why this race becomes an eight-figure financial boondoggle for both the Democrats and the Republicans. Stewart is too busy letting his longtime Daily Show buddy rattle off improvisational responses to the content of an opponent’s billboard and generally behave like Brick Tamland if he were a long-time NPR donor. A scene during which Zimmer tries to place background cows for the cameras just so would be funnier if Carell tried to stay out of the way but found his hand forced to intervene. Instead, Carell immediately launches into loud-noises mania that might make the Deerlaken news but certainly doesn’t make you laugh.
As Hastings’ stock rises, Zimmer’s Republican rival-cum-romantic interest Faith Brewster (a bleached-blonde Rose Byrne) arrives to shore up the opposition. Soon enough, tiny little Deerlaken becomes ground zero for the national strategy of both parties. There are fleeting laughs — the preparation of a “burger and Bud” Zimmer orders upon arriving in town, the strangely passive-aggressive hospitality of Deerlaken’s denizens, Brewster’s obsession with over-punctuating advertisements, and a wonderful moment of weirdness when inimitable physical comedian Bill Irwin turns up as a big-bucks donor. The throwaway gags of the super PAC names that come to support both Hastings and his opponent are also worth a chuckle or two. But without a punch-up posse at his side, Stewart isn’t able to sustain any of those strong moments beyond a mild chuckle, and Irresistible’s narrative crux goes so far beyond “on the nose” as to instead go up it.
Irresistible is neither troubling enough for a trajectory of tragedy nor playful enough to pave a path toward parody, settling on the middling, middle-ground malaise of “hmm … makes you think!” Although it’s nowhere near as terrible as Man of the Year, the “aw shucks, everybody” attitude feels as antiquated now as Barry Levinson’s dreary misfire did in 2006, when Stewart and company were at the peak of their powers. Speaking of that era, there was a stronger populist streak in the dice-manufacturing subplot of 2007’s Ocean’s Thirteen than anything Stewart musters here. Like that trilogy, Irresistible suggests we can all rally behind a grift of good nature. But from a guy who once staged a Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, that’s an awfully naïve response to America being stripped for parts. The most persuasive argument in Irresistible is that Stewart skedaddled when he did for good reason because he no longer has much worth saying.