It took me a while to accept Jon Stewart’s new political comedy, “Irresistible,” for the film it is rather than the one I wanted it to be.
I went in hoping his sophomore effort (following 2014’s “Rosewater”) would be a mix of Frank Capra’s democracy-celebrating “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and Armando Iannucci’s democracy-baiting “In the Loop.” In other words, an angry liberal broadside that would skewer sacred political cows and the incumbent at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. You know, vintage “Daily Show” Stewart.
Instead, it’s a fairly genteel comedy that talks about the underlying problems in American politics with a gentle whisper rather than shouts from the rooftops. There’s no raging against the machine here, just a wryly amusing comedy content to take potshots at both sides and decry the way politics has spawned an industry of pollsters, pundits and political consultants where everything is dictated by dollars. This is a film about politics that isn’t, for once, about actual politicians, but that giant machine whirring in the background behind them.
Or, as a caption at the end of the movie puts it, “Money lived happily ever after … reveling in its outsized influence over American politics.”
I could give you a list of things I didn’t like about “Irresistible,” topped by the woefully underwritten GOP political consultant played by Rose Byrne, the story’s complete disinterest in actual Red vs. Blue politics, and its unsteady handling of tone – the only thing I’ve seen more faltering than the film’s romantic-comedy undercurrent is Donald Trump walking down a ramp. Then there’s its lack of subtlety over how it presents the media (a bunch of vacuous idiots happy to swallow whatever they’re told, according to Mr. Stewart – a continuation of his “Daily Show” disdain for, of course, Fox News, but also CNN and MSNBC).
But those faults are ultimately outnumbered by the things I did admire about the movie, including Stewart’s refusal to go down the obvious path of sticking it to Trump, and Steve Carell’s latest on-screen sad sack: Democratic spin doctor Gary Zimmer, who believes he’s found in ex-marine Col. Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper) the perfect candidate to win back flyover-state voters – someone who “looks conservative yet sounds progressive.”
There’s also the knowingly folksy depiction of “Rural America, Heartland, U.S.A.,” as a caption mockingly describes the fictional Wisconsin town of Deerlaken. There there’s the big idea underpinning the entire movie, which I can’t reveal but which may cause a few viewers to revise their opinion about what they’ve just witnessed by its end.
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Now and zen
I say all this as a big fan of “The Daily Show” under Stewart, but not as someone who worships at the guy’s feet. For instance, I really wasn’t a fan of “Rosewater,” which to me was a dramatically inert, 100-minute mea culpa where he apologized for getting a Canadian-Iranian journalist thrown into an Iranian prison and tortured.
“Irresistible,” though, gave me plenty of moments of zen – and you’ve got to take those where you can find them these days. It’s probably no coincidence that the best bits hinted at a more scabrous, less conventional, movie – the pick being Bill Irwin’s cameo as a barely alive billionaire, Elton Chambers, who appears on screen for about a minute looking like a cross between RoboCop and Stephen Hawking. Chambers asks a candidate, to the tune of “Hava Nagila”: “Tell me, what is your position concerning the settlement of Kevyat Sharim?” Then he pledges lots of money when told that the candidate strongly “believes that sovereign nations are entitled to self-defense.”
There are also funny throwaway gags involving a small group of white supremacists standing around with tiki torches, antifa protesters and “teachable moments.” I also heartily endorse this film’s jokes about semicolons. And it’s impossible not to hear Stewart himself when a character declares at a key moment: “This system, the way we elect people, it’s terrifying and it’s exhausting – and I think it’s driving us all insane.”
Sure, I would have liked more of this irreverence. More “Veep,” less “Spin City,” in other words. But I’ve seen far worse political comedies over the years, and am personally offended that critics were kinder to the lame Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis comedy “The Campaign” (2012) than they’re being to “Irresistible” – though, in fairness, Dylan McDermott is very funny as the political Svengali in that Jay Roach movie. (If you want to see a great political drama with funny moments, Roach’s 2012 HBO film “Game Change” remains the best recent effort.)
The problem with “Irresistible” is the branding. If critics did a Pepsi Challenge, the film would be given way more slack than when people are going in knowing it’s a Jon Stewart movie.
Looking for a savior
During his 16-year stint at the helm of “The Daily Show,” Stewart established himself as the indubitable king of liberal America. When he departed in August 2015, the sense of loss was palpable – with even The New Yorker demanding that he return to fight the good fight ahead of the 2016 presidential election. (Stewart, of course, was a longtime supporter of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and I wonder if she might have fared better in the recent Democratic primaries if he were still in a prominent media position to champion her cause.)
Funny people have been able to fill the void left by Stewart, and it’s surely no coincidence that four of them – Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Samantha Bee and Trevor Noah – are all “Daily Show” alumni (with the latter doing a fine job in the Comedy Central chair since replacing Stewart in September 2015).
Yet many critics and fans have been eagerly anticipating the second coming of Stewart, waiting for him to swoop down from his New Jersey farmhouse on a trusty white steed and save us all from the horrors of another four years of that beast in the White House. And when he finally does show up, what does our would-be savior bring us? A Christopher Guest-esque film that won’t be scaring the horses in “rural America.”
But short of turning the life of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez into a political romantic comedy (with a cameo from Larry David as Bernie Sanders), I’m not sure Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz will ever be able to do anything post-“Daily Show” that will compare to what got him on the Mount Rushmore of American comedy in the first place. And that’s OK. The guy’s nearly 60 – “Irresistible” does indeed feel like a film that was written by someone in his late 50s, not some woke kid fresh out of film school – and spent over a quarter of his life making some of the best late-night TV ever. It’s enough.
“Irresistible” won’t lead to the overthrow of America’s political system. But it may put a smile on your face. For now, that will just have to do. And besides, everyone knows that if you want brilliant political comedy right now, you just need to follow Sarah Cooper.
“Irresistible” is available to rent on digital platforms such as Amazon Prime, Apple TV and GooglePlay.