Movies

In Irresistible, Jon Stewart’s Shtick Is Out of Date

Steve Carell plays a political insider struggling to adjust with the times. Its writer-director might relate.

Carell wears a blazer with an American flag pin and holds a smartphone and a to-go cup of coffee. Mackenzie Davis looks comfortable in blue jeans. Neither seems to be happy with what they're watching.
Steve Carell and Mackenzie Davis in Irresistible. Daniel McFadden / Focus Features

For the better part of 16 years, Jon Stewart functioned as the moral conscience of a certain subset of Americans. Unaffiliated if not precisely nonpartisan, he called bullshit on dissemblers and propagandists while offering (apparent) straight-talkers from across the political spectrum a forum in which to present themselves as rational centrists, the kind with whom one might have disagreements, but they would always be polite. In retrospect, he retired just in time. In the not-quite-five years since he handed the Daily Show baton to Trevor Noah, the rhetorical DMZ that Stewart tried to occupy has shrunk to a narrow strip, and the right-wing ecosystem he dubbed “Bullshit Mountain” has become a volcano that never stops erupting.

Irresistible is the first movie Stewart has produced since leaving The Daily Show, and it begins more or less where his career as onscreen voice of reason left off, in the spin room after the first Trump–Clinton debate. Democratic campaign strategist Gary Zimmer (Steve Carell) and his Republican counterpart Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne) would normally be furiously pumping out soundbites about how their candidate won the day, but instead they’re telling us the truth for once: They don’t care who said what, who came out ahead and who fell on their face; they’re just spinning a narrative for the media to run with. Politics, am I right?

A few months later, Gary is waking up on the day after the election with a splitting headache and a career path whose trajectory seems as promising as the trail of garbage on his bedroom floor (the transition from champagne to booze to an empty pint of Ben & Jerry’s tells a story of its own). But the potential for salvation, both his and the Democratic Party’s, arrives in the form of a viral video from Deerlaken, Wisconsin, where a “hero marine” grabs the mic at a small-town meeting to stand up for the rights of immigrants. Chris Cooper’s Col. Jack Hastings is the kind of figure both Democratic strategists and coastal liberals have dreams about, a rural farmer whose dedication to American ideals makes him part of the party’s base, even if, as Gary admits, he doesn’t know it yet.

Gary arrives in Deerlaken, a small town that has gotten much smaller since the closure of the military base it was built around, believing that his stay will be a short one. He’ll convince Jack to run for mayor against the Republican incumbent, blow away the cornfed rubes with his big-city knowledge, and be back on his private jet faster than you can say haricots verts. But Jack insists he stick around, and so Gary finds himself camping out in a room above the local tavern, where there’s no Wi-Fi and the locals look at him as if he’s just returned from the moon. Soon, he’s joined by his team of crack campaign operatives, including Topher Grace’s pollster and Natasha Lyonne’s analytics guru, but their big-data black magic doesn’t work in a town where politics is so local that they can identify the swing voters by name. (You half-expect the polling results to come back with a margin of error that’s plus or minus Fred.)

Once Faith joins Gary in Deerlaken and the candidates for a small-town mayoralty start lobbing well-funded attack ads at each other, it seems like Irresistible is going the way of Our Brand Is Crisis, with rural Wisconsin subbed in for Bolivia: foreigners invade and corrupt the process, touting a more advanced form of democracy while perverting it at the root. But Stewart isn’t that much of a cynic, or even enough of one. The movie feels more influenced by Preston Sturges’ fish-out-of-water comedies than Stewart’s decade and a half as a close reader of the American political landscape. His rural red state has the generic feel of a Hollywood warehouse (the movie was shot in Georgia), and it’s not substantially more diverse than a studio comedy from the 1940s. The immigrants Jack went viral for defending appear in the background once or twice, but none become actual characters. Stewart buys into the narrative that Donald Trump won because, as Gary says to Jack, “guys like me don’t know how to talk to guys like you,” not nativist rhetoric or voter suppression or foreign influence. He makes the system the villain and then suggests the best people can do is game it to their own advantage.

Like Stewart himself, Irresistible is unfailingly ingratiating, but its best moments are when Stewart falls back on his skills as a comedian rather than a pundit, like when Faith ducks down to give Gary a peck on the cheek and instead runs her tongue up the side of his face. When the focus is squarely on politics, you can’t help but notice how the movie’s analysis falls far short of The Daily Show at its best. The moments that elevated Stewart to truth-teller-in-chief were those when he was furious without being self-righteous, finding moral clarity without closed-mindedness . But Irresistible doesn’t feel angry so much as disappointed, the product of a man who tried to get us to listen and failed. It’s a self-flagellating portrait of coastal liberals that seems of little interest to anyone else, aimed at people who either know everything it has to say or aren’t likely to end up seeing it. Irresistible might be a movie for the moment before or the moment after, but it feels entirely out of step with the one it’s in.

For more culture coverage, listen to Mira Jacob describe the challenges of writing her memoir, Good Talk, on Working.