So much in the world has changed since the last time I’ve been able to review a new film. I mean, as of this writing, the last few days alone have seen the “president” retweet a video of a White supremacist and news that he has likely spent months ignoring the fact that a hostile foreign power placed a bounty for the killing of American and British soldiers in Afghanistan. Starting before that, we’ve had millions of people around the world march in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and the teargassing of some of these protestors for a photo opportunity. And, starting before that, a pandemic has caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, mass unemployment and economic suffering, is still wrecking absolute havoc in the United States with several locales reporting record numbers of new cases in the last week, and – although this is miniscule in comparison – delayed or altered the release of almost all of 2020’s theatrical films. And it’s in this tumultuous climate that one of these films, Jon Stewart’s political satire Irresistible, is finally released.
Now it should be stated here that I’ve been a huge fan of Stewart’s work even before he became the host of The Daily Show. My admiration of the stand-up turned faux newsman is so well known among my family and friends that when America: The Book was released in 2004 I received four copies as Christmas gifts (I also still have the copy of Naked Pictures of Famous People I received before Stewart started on The Daily Show). One thing that I quickly learned about Stewart is that, like Kurt Vonnegut before him, underneath the acerbic wit there is a genuine concern for humanity and the ways we may coexist. This ethos was perhaps best exemplified in 2010 when Stewart along with former Daily Show correspondent and then faux news pundit Stephen Colbert co-hosted the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in Washington DC. Rather than being the anti-right wing screed that I and many of his core audience anticipated, the Rally was an appeal to the vast majority of Americans who don’t reside on the political extremes including several “Medals of Reasonableness” awarded for such plainly humane acts as preventing the burning of a Qur’an, politely criticizing President Obama, not attacking a baseball umpire for a blown call, and sticking up for a boy bullied for being gay. Stewart would later say that much of the media, and even the politicians in power at the time, fed the idea that conflict in America is between the right and the left when the real conflict is “corruption versus not-corruption.” It’s this spirit – the one that pushes aside partisan arguments in favor of what both sides should recognize as wrong – that pervades Irresistible. It’s also this spirit – that both sides have their own absurdities – that pervades the film’s response.
Granted, while some of this criticism is misplaced by an audience that likely expected more anger from Irresistible, as they did from the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear ten years previous, some of it is definitely earned. The very first scene includes Steve Carell and Rose Byrne spinning for their candidates following a 2016 presidential debate before then just directly expressing disgust that a “spin room” is an accepted political practice. While funny, this throwaway gag creates the false expectation that Irresistible is a pointed indictment of the American political system rather than a milder, occasionally silly, needling of how money and division have come to control much of our everyday lives. It’s the type of broad, farcical film where Carell’s Gary Zimmer yells at cows for not making a proper campaign kick-off backdrop and Mackenzie Davis’s Diana is introduced elbow-deep in another cow’s butt, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that other than it isn’t what most people expected.
Zimmer, as the representative of the Democratic party, is highly skilled at mobilizing his troops, shouting orders, and predicting his opponent’s moves. Carell wonderfully portrays the distrust and bafflement that such a honed political operative would have at strangers saying hello and offering free pastries. The eagerness which with he throws himself into relating to voters of rural Wisconsin so well captures the way that his party tries to portray itself as down-home and folksy that he feels like an easy target for humor. Similarly, Chris Cooper’s Colonel Jack Hastings is a little too perfect as a Frank Capra-esque hero who pokes at an audience of New York elite with a tale of how his town has been forgotten. Then there’s Rose Byrne oozing unrepentant evil. As Republican campaign specialist Faith Brewster, Byrne tosses off callous lies as easily as breathing. She’s awful, knows she’s awful, and loves that she’s awful, all of which makes her the most dynamic and engaging thing on scene, equally disgusting as she is hot. It’s little wonder that the funniest, most memorable interactions come when Gary and Faith – obvious stand-ins for James Carville and Mary Matalin, but that can be forgiven – are locked in their own form of combat and/or foreplay. When we see how supposed vicious enemies are wholly and inextricably dependent upon each other, or Zimmer declares that part of his staff are now unaffiliated 527 political action committees, or Natasha Lyonne breaks voters down to what they most often enter into a search engine, or tons of other quick, precise observations on the ridiculousness of elections are when Irresistible is at its best. The film doesn’t need to be angry, especially when these absurd, easily recognizable wrongs are already as accepted as the concept of a spin room, it just needs to be funny. Generally speaking, it’s exactly that. There’s nothing groundbreaking in its script or revolutionary in its filmmaking, but the cast is enjoyable and there are enough laughs to make it a pleasant experience. It’s clear that in appealing to the vast majority existing outside of the extremes, Stewart has held back on sharper humor. Yet, as someone who’s more interested in attempting to restore sanity and not fear to our political discourse and campaigns, it’s understandable that Stewart would rather find the common humanity in his characters than in eviscerating stand-ins for so-called enemies.
Personally, I find the most offensive thing about Irresistible to be the criticism that the film feels out of date, as though Stewart and the crew should’ve been able to anticipate the future and/or finish the entire production within two weeks of its post-delay release. Movies take a long time to make, especially when they’re smaller, independent productions. It would have been impossible for anyone to write, shoot, edit, and release something that captures how radically the political landscape has changed in just the last four weeks let alone the last four years. Irresistible isn’t a documentary, nor is it news, and demanding that a satirical film somehow inform an audience that has become accustomed to 24-hour news coverage of viral videos is as ridiculous as demanding fairness and balance from a satirical television show. It isn’t a movie’s job to teach or to scream at those you disagree with. It’s a movie’s job to entertain you while also, hopefully, making a point. In its final scenes, Irresistible reminds us that the conflict isn’t between left and right, it’s corruption versus not corruption. It isn’t perfect, but at a time when the country is so divided that we’re actually debating whether or not it should be all right for a “president” to have chemical weapons used against peaceful citizens just so he can hold a Bible and pretend to be strong, a film that tries to find a little common ground between the two sides should be welcomed and not seen as the relic of some distant past five years ago.
Perhaps there is no better statement to summarize the intent of Irresistible than Jon Stewart’s own words during the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear:
This is not a rally to ridicule people of faith, or people of activism, or look down our noses at the heartland, or passionate argument, or to suggest that times are not difficult and that we have nothing to fear. They are, and we do. But we live now in hard times, not end times.