The ins and outs of politics have become so extreme in recent years that they’re almost impossible to parody. But even so, political comedies are always tricky. They tend to tell us things we already know, and still we nod sagely and chuckle appreciatively, as if we really have learned something new. Even the most clever political satire can run aground, and Jon Stewart’s Irresistible is a case in point. It’s perfectly entertaining as you’re watching, but when it’s over, you might not feel any smarter—or humbler—than you did going in.
Gary Zimmer (Steve Carell) is a wheeler-dealer Democratic political consultant who sets out to restore his debilitated party’s luster after the 2016 election. From his perch in Washington, he sees a video of an impassioned speech given by a modest, principled farmer and Marine vet at a town-hall meeting in Deerlaken, Wis., a community in sharp decline. (An earlier title card has alerted us that the general locale is Rural America, Heartland USA.) Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper) strides into the meeting and stands up to Deerlaken’s Mayor Braun (Brent Sexton), who’s about to pass a resolution that would cause further suffering to the town’s citizens, particularly its immigrants. Impressed by Jack’s plainspoken, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington vibe, Gary decides to play God, politically speaking, by persuading Jack to run for mayor of Deerlaken: his aim is to “road-test a more rural-friendly message” and, hopefully, secure a blue foothold in a red state.
Gary’s cynicism, steeped in the truth that Big Money is what keeps the political gears turning, is the movie’s chief joke. For a while, it’s funny. At one point, he boasts that his Midwestern discovery Jack is “a cross between MacArthur and elk jerky.” And as he brings Jack around to meet liberal donors, a jarring irony emerges: while these people throw money around for political gain, communities like Jack’s, in need of a jump start, languish.
As a writer and director, Stewart is clever and nimble. The script is filled with zingers, and Carell—who worked as a writer and correspondent for Stewart’s The Daily Show in the early 2000s—has fun slinging them. This is Stewart’s second film as a director (his debut was the earnest, intelligent 2014 Rosewater), and as you know if you ever watched The Daily Show during his years as host, his brain is always in overdrive. But that’s part of the problem here: Irresistible has a super-smarty-pants vibe that’s admirable until it becomes exhausting. Even if you completely agree with the assessment Stewart delivers in the story’s surprise capper, his style is so sanctimoniously jaunty that it might still wear you down.
But Irresistible does offer some brainy pleasures along the way, chief among them Rose Byrne’s performance as Gary’s Republican counterpart and nemesis Faith Brewster. Faith arrives in Deerlaken, hot on Gary’s heels, to take over the incumbent mayor’s campaign with a vengeance, invading this world of flannel and trucker’s caps in needle-sharp stilettos and an assortment of statement-sleeve tops. She lies outright and laughs about it, knowing that once the media picks up a story, even a comically false one, it becomes its own kind of truth. And the hate-love between her and Gary is strong. In one scene, he unlocks the door of the modest room he’s rented in Deerlaken, only to find her lounging on his bed in a silk kimono, lying in wait like a viper. These two are a match made in Washington hell. Together, they’re the movie’s greatest gag, the tawdry purple that you get when you mix red and blue.