I’d been warned that Jon Stewart’s new movie, Irresistible, had something hidden up its sleeve. It had to. Otherwise it was all too straightforward. As I began watching my embargoed, two-factor–protected screening stream—with my own name floating in the middle of the screen to guard against leaks or piracy—I felt a moment of confusion: Hadn’t I already seen this top-secret movie, somehow?
Eventually I worked out that what I remembered seeing must have been the trailer, back when movie theaters were still open. It was just that the setup, written and directed by Stewart, was so schematic, I couldn’t feel a difference in the early going between that synopsis and its feature-length realization. A cynical city-slicker Democratic political operative (played by Steve Carell) sees a viral video of a stalwart, ex-Marine Wisconsin farmer (played by Chris Cooper) giving a plainspoken but eloquent speech in defense of immigrants in a town meeting, and he decides to go make a politician out of him. In very short order, a local mayoral race in the fictional, depressed heartland town of Deerlaken becomes a media-sensational proxy war fought by the national political establishment. Steve Carell yells at some cows for not suitably arranging themselves in the background of the campaign launch event. And so on.
Everything was so obvious, it couldn’t possibly be that obvious. Carell’s Gary Zimmer is too phony to even be a believable phony: a high-powered career Democratic campaign consultant who somehow needs to give himself a crash course on Green Bay Packers football on his private jet ride to Wisconsin. One running bit begins when he walks into a bar with a big Hofbräu sign and loudly orders a Budweiser and a burger, not noticing the polite double-takes from the bartender and the other draft-drinking patrons, nor catching on that the burger and bottle of Bud get brought in from elsewhere. Maybe Jon Stewart has personally met a political road warrior who has failed to notice the past couple of decades of transformation in beer and food culture, but it comes across as if the director doesn’t even know what his lead character would or wouldn’t know.
Who is condescending to whom, here? Zimmer and his Republican nemesis/hate-flirtation object Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne) are transparently appalling and rude to the locals, in a way that defies even the psychological logic of broad comedy. The candidate, Colonel Jack Hastings, and his daughter, Diana (Mackenzie Davis), are wise and patient, speaking up against Zimmer’s crude and glib political schemes—even as Colonel Jack wins over the Upper West Side donor class with his too-good-to-be-bought message of decency and humanity.
Part of the reason it doesn’t quite fit is that Stewart can’t quite decide on his tone. Sometimes it plays as a gentle-seeming small-town fish-out-of-water comedy, sometimes as a more acidic satire of political manners. Every now and then the mood shifts into wildly grotesque parody: a three-quarters-comatose billionaire megadonor stomps into the scene with his lolling body held up by a lumbering mechanical exoskeleton, demanding to know if the colonel is properly pro-Israel; CNN brings out “the Duodecabox,” in which 12 talking heads take turns jabbering over each other six at a time. It’s a 21st century update on the endlessly stretched-out baseball commentary booth in The Naked Gun. These gags seem to belong to some entirely different movie, maybe something as feverishly absurd and dangerous as the actual Trump–Biden era.
But this is Jon Stewart, the comedian who refused to tell the Aristocrats joke in The Aristocrats. He had something else in mind for Irresistible—not transgressive but cerebral, a plot twist to upend the viewer’s expectations. As the story closes in on Election Day, with satellite trucks in the streets of Deerlaken and the incumbent mayor’s polling margin over Colonel Jack dwindling down from double digits to decimal points to a handful of specific names, we suddenly learn the real reason the townies have been willing to put up with Zimmer’s superior airs and crass electioneering and Bud-and-burger order: The mayoral campaign, unbeknownst to the savvy political expert, is fake.
In pro-wrestling lingo, the whole thing has been a work. Colonel Jack’s passionate everyman speech in the viral video was scripted and rehearsed and fed to Zimmer by a Deerlaken mole in his office, to fool him into flying out and pledging his efforts to make their little town a national battleground. While the Democrats, chased by the Republicans, were trying to use the citizens of Deerlaken as a field experiment in how to win the rural Midwest, the citizens of Deerlaken were plotting to milk the political system for millions of dollars in campaign spending and PAC money—a cash infusion to save their ruined municipal budget.
After all the phone banking and house-by-house demographic targeting and high-impact advertising, the ordinary people of Deerlaken decline to cast their ballots at all, letting the two candidates vote themselves into a 1–1 tie. Zimmer, standing dazed after the polls have closed, is forced to confront the fact that the innocent, smiling faces all around manipulated him into acting out a sort of electoral Truman Show, carried unwittingly by the cable news networks. The virtuous young Diana, who is credited with coming up with the scheme, scoffs at him for having harbored romantic designs on her despite the fact that he is old enough to be her father. The beefy, jovial bar regulars, freed from the burden of playing the rubes, begin fondly discussing the work of media theorist Neil Postman.
Get it? It’s a sham, just like our whole political system is a sham. Look at that foolish, arrogant Zimmer, swaggering off to a Midwest he couldn’t understand, just to try to take cheap political advantage of … a white man who’d spoken up in defense of immigrants? But that was just a MacGuffin, you see. Evidently Deerlaken wasn’t actually passing an anti-immigrant measure. It wasn’t real politics. In real politics, a few hours after my access to the embargoed stream of Irresistible expired, President Trump announced he was cutting off nearly all immigrant work visas for the rest of the year.
Yes, unchecked money in politics, as Stewart himself summarizes while the credits roll, is shameful and corrupting. The former Daily Show host has told America about this for a long time, and it has needed telling. But American politics now fully exists in the shameful and corrupted world that the unchecked money sought to bring about. And sure, unquestionably, cable news is poisonous, and the campaign consultant class is monstrous. Also it’s 100 degrees in the Arctic and a pandemic is spreading out of control due to sheer governmental incompetence. Under the circumstances, it’s hard to think of anything more out-of-touch and elitist than a political fantasy that imagines everyone in Wisconsin secretly thinks like Jon Stewart.
For more of Slate’s movie coverage, listen to a spoiler-filled discussion of Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods.
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