S1: The following podcast contains explicit language like.
S2: Charlotte grading paper by. What’s in the box?
S3: Yo, yo, yo, yo.
S4: Hello and welcome to another Slate spoiler special. I’m Dana Stevens, Slate’s movie critic. Today, we’re going to be spoiling the new Jon Stewart movie Irresistible. And I’m joined today to do that by Sam Adams, who is a Slate senior editor and the editor of our culture blog Browbeat. Hey, Sam. Hello. And also by Tom Skoko, I think a first time guest on this podcast who is Slate’s politics editor. Hey, Tom. Morning. And before we get started, just by way of an acoustics note, seems like we have one of these ever since we all started recording podcasts from our homes. But Tom Pscholka lives apparently two blocks away from a fire station and has nonstop alarms and sirens in his background. So if you hear any of that going on in the background, do not be alarmed at the alarms. So irresistible. I guess we maybe need to give a little bit of background on on what irresistable is. And because you’re the person who wrote on it, reviewed it for Slate. Sam, do you want to tell us about Jon Stewart’s second venture into being a filmmaker and writer director?
S5: Do I? Yes, sure. So this is the second movie that Jon Stewart has directed, the first since fully leaving The Daily Show in 2015. And so can sort of fairly be construed as his response to the Trump era stars. Steve Carell as a Democratic campaign consultant who, after getting his ass kicked in the 2016 election, is trying to get his mojo back by managing as small Small-Town mayoral candidate in rural Wisconsin, played by Chris Cooper, whose ex Marine colonel who as Steve Chorales character puts it, is a Democrat, even if he doesn’t know it yet. And so this mayoral candidate in this middle of nowhere town in Wisconsin becomes a proxy battle for not only the future of the Democratic Party, but American politics as a whole. Once Steve Girl’s character is joined by his Republican counterpart, played by Rose Byrne. So it’s a classic sort of fish out of water story. You know, Big Town comes to that little town, Washington political operatives out of their depth in, quote, unquote, real America and a statement of sorts on all of these things to get a sense of how the dialogue in this film sounds and sort of the type of characters that Steve Carrell in Roseburg are playing.
S4: We’ll listen to a little clip from the movie.
S2: I am telling you guys, Jack could be the real deal. This little campaign of ours has caught the attention of the national Republican Party. Why are you here?
S4: Because crossing the last piece of hope in your eyes, I guess, feels so good to see you. Yeah, you look fat. All right. Well, one thing I like to do at the beginning of these spoiler specials, since these are not really about reviewing as much as, you know, just going through and analyzing. Bit by bit talking about this movie in whatever way we want. Essentially, let’s get the evaluative part out of the way early and just go around the table and ask, did you guys like this movie? Would you send a friend to it? Tom, I’ll start with you, since you haven’t spoken yet.
S1: I dislike the movie. The movie has a twist built into it, and the twist is revolting and disappointing. Twists and turns makes the whole movie even maybe a little bit less than what it was before.
S4: I completely agree about the twist. I’m also really disappointed in the movie that I tried to go into with a good spirit. We didn’t talk much about Rosewater. Jon Stewart’s first directorial effort, which was back in 2010 when he was still hosting The Daily Show. I mean, I don’t think there’s anybody out there who was, you know, a huge, rabid fan of Rosewater. But I think in general sort of received as you know, this is a pretty good first debut movie for a guy who is from out completely outside the world of filmmaking. And to me, this feels like what I was afraid Rosewater would be, which is a very amateurish movie by someone who doesn’t feel like they understand how people actually speak, is sort of incapable of writing dialogue. That rings true. But, Sam, what about you? I read your review, so. I know. But just putting it out there.
S5: Spoiler alert. Yeah, I disappointed. Was it will work. I used to. And then I kind of went from disappointed to angry, partly because of the twist. And just also as it became clear that that’s what little they had to say. It seems not only uninteresting, but kind of disingenuous and wrongheaded and just kind of shockingly shallow for someone whose job for the better part of 15 years was, you know, watching American media and politics. And to think that kind of this movie is Jon Stewart’s take away is a little a little bit shocking to me. I mean, I think his role was kind of America’s, you know, formost, pop, cultural, intellectual or whatever he was supposed to be and was always a little bit overblown. But it is genuinely surprising to me how far this movie falls short of even Jon Stewart at his best.
S4: Yeah. I mean, I think I went in thinking, well, how bad can this be? Right. Like, at the very least, it will have good jokes. Dialogue, it’s got Steve Carell. I thought that it would probably add slickly enjoyable, if somewhat predictable political satire. And I kind of agree that its grasp on not just this political moment, but even though the political moment that Jon Stewart, I think is still stuck in, which is one and sort of the pre Trump era. Right. Right before his show ended. Even for that, it’s toothless, like it would be toothless for an old Daily Show skit. Didn’t you get that sensation throughout?
S5: Right. I mean, the premise of irresistible is basically, as Steve Girl’s character Gary says to Chris Cooper’s character, retired Marine Colonel Jack Hastings, is the reason that the Democrats are losing is because guys like me don’t know how to talk to guys like you. So it completely buys into, like the second week in November 2016 idea that, you know, Trump won the election and Republicans are control or because the Democratic Party has kind of abandoned particularly the rural white working class. And then until they kind of learn to speak that language again, they’re never going to gain power. And that’s not to say that’s not like a part of it. But, I mean, it was clear even that it is so clear now. I mean, there’s no mention of like race baiting or voter suppression or gerrymandering or any of these other issues that are such a huge part of that. And it just seems like such a shallow and kind of equivocal misreading of what’s going on, that the movie ultimately comes down on the idea that the system is broken and there’s too much money in politics, which, you know, again, not untrue, but to act as if like that’s the only problem is just kind of mind boggling to me. And for me, the really damning thing, the moment I kind of crossed over from being, you know, disappointed in the movie to getting mad at it is I’m the reason that Steve Carell ends up in your lock in Wisconsin in the first place is because of a viral YouTube clip. Chris Cooper’s character storms into a town meeting where the mayor is preparing to pass this regulation that would basically bar local immigrants from taking advantage of town services. The military base that was kind of the lifeblood of the town has shut down. They’ve fallen on hard times there. Everything is stretched thin. And their solution for this economically is apparently to, you know, basically cut off people who aren’t white from town services. And Chris Cooper storms in and says, you know, this is America. We can’t do stuff like this. Yada, yada, yada. It goes viral. And Steve Carell sees this, you know, in the middle of his, you know, air conditioned office in Washington, D.C., and decides he has to disguise the next Democratic star. He flies out and goes to get him. So the moment that I realized at the end of the movie and thinking back on it is that these immigrants that Chris Cooper supposedly defending and there’s a reason for this maybe concerning the twist, which I guess we’ll get to later. But these immigrants that he’s supposedly defending never show up in the movie, never become characters are really barely even seen on their almost no characters in the movie who aren’t white, who aren’t this kind of, you know, classic, you know, version of kind of Hollywood version of rural white people. And the idea that Steve Carell has come out there because the party needs to connect with the role whites. And there’s no mention of non-white people as far as a demographic that the Democratic Party needs to pay attention to and that they don’t really have no presence in the movie whatsoever is actually like genuinely shocking for me, in part because it raises the issue in the first 10 minutes and then just completely forgets about it.
S4: Yeah. In fact, I thought that if it if there would be any twist, that would be the twist. I was thinking that at the end of the movie it would turn out that I don’t know either that there was some immigrant underclass in the town that was going to turn the election by surprise or whatever surprise was sprung at the end of the movie, I thought would have something to do with the actual subject of that town hall that Chris Cooper storms into at the beginning, sort of rising up to make their own voice heard. And, you know, without spoiling this boiler yet. That is not what happened at the end.
S1: Right. It’s like the most appalling Real-Life policy initiatives of the Trump administration are entirely magoffin like. It’s just the pretext for putting on the rest of the show.
S4: Right. So what is the problem that Stewart is diagnosing here? I mean, this is a very message heavy movie. It almost even knows that about itself. Right? I mean, it’s not a movie that’s trying to present, first of all, a character and stories. And secondly, the message almost like an unfunny version of the show Veep, the TV show Veep. Instead, it is you know, every character represents some sort of malevolent political force. But in the diagnosis of this movie, this seems to be a critique of the money that flows through electoral politics more than it is any sort of critique of what the GOP is actually doing to divide the electorate right now.
S1: Yeah, the thing about the his campaign finance fixation in the movie is that it’s definitely the case that campaign finance is a huge problem, as he’s been telling everyone for a long time. But by now, the out of control campaign finance system. Has given birth to a political system on top of it. It’s not just worrying about whether the money is being spent to buy too much influence. It’s that we actually were living through what happens when a bunch of plutocrat cranks really get into the government and get to pursue their cranky agenda. Although campaign finance is a huge problem, we’re now living in the world that have control. Campaign finance is built and there are many more visible political consequences. So it sort of is he’s still focused on the background condition rather than on the new reality that has already come into being.
S4: Yeah, that seems like that would have been such a in addition to being more politically astute for a moment. It would have been a richer comic vein to go down. Right. I mean, to look at the fact that all this is happening under the Trump administration, which instead he uses the election, Trump’s election 2016, to kick off the movie, to give the characters motivation to, you know, reinvent their lives by going to this small town and fighting this proxy battle in this mayoral race, but doesn’t actually talk about what’s going on in Washington at that same time, which, of course, if this were really happening, would have an enormous influence. Right. I mean, the fact that Rose Byrne’s character, for example, would have to defend the actions of the Trump administration that could have made for a whole mine of political jokes that’s never explored at all.
S1: Right. It’s like I don’t know if you had a movie about the Roosevelt administration and didn’t mention it to the Great Depression or or the war, depending on what point it was going on. It’s just like a weird absence of history, even as we’re all drowning in history.
S5: I think he’s trying to do something that is both kind of topical. And I mean, the word I’d use is generic. He’d probably say classic or something like that. I kept being reminded of the Ivan Reitman movie Dave, and sort of through that lineage all the way back to like Preston Sturges movies about small Turnham, 10 Americans. I think that it just felt like a generic kind of central casting version of what white rural America is like was actually shot in Georgia. I mean, everything is now because of tax credits and whatnot. But given that the upshot of the movie at the end is that the best thing Washington could do for rural red state America is just go in and spend a ton of money. The fact that this move didn’t actually go and spend a ton of money in rural red state America is a little infuriating to me on top of everything else. But yeah, it feels. Just kind of in a generic and bland and the jokes about where people are in small towns, you’re like and what big city political consultants are like are also kind of tired and old hat, you can sort of make a case once you get to the twist that that’s the point. You know that this is all kind of a big put on. And so the reason it feels inauthentic is because it is. But you can’t really kind of retcon, you know, the first 90 minutes of the movie until, oh, it was bad on purpose, wink, wink, because it’s not actually supposed to be real. It’s like, well, then what did I just sit through that whole time?
S4: Right. Well, this is sort of jumping ahead, but I feel like we need to spoil the twist in order to talk about this movie in any depth. Because as you say, Sam, it doesn’t force you to completely retcon everything you’ve just seen and suspends the movie into an even stranger world of non resemblance to our political reality than it already occupied. So, Tom, I’m going to throw it to you because I think you probably feel more spight toward this movie than any of the three of us. So go ahead and tell us what happens in the last 50 minutes.
S1: And to do that, I think we probably need to set up the character of Chris Cooper’s daughter, played by Mackenzie Davis, to Chris Cooper’s daughter has been sort of saintly and patient and has challenged a cynical big city assumptions of the consultants that every turn. She’s the voice and face of Small-Town honesty and rectitude. And then all of a sudden, as they’re preparing to do a savage oppo dump on the incumbent mayor, something involving his opioid addicted brother, I believe she shows up at the incumbent neighbor’s house late at night and suddenly it becomes clear that they’re in cahoots on something. What it turns out that they’re in cahoots on is that the whole election is fake. It’s all put on. It’s a work. The video was fake. It was staged to lure the big city political consultants out, to turn this small town into a national political battleground so that they could milk all the money from them and get all the PACs which are corrupting America to pour their money into their towns so that they could make up for the loss of the military base and restore their economy. And the election itself is a sham. Nobody bothers to vote except the two candidates. It comes out a tie. I guess they’re going to work together to spend all the money that they’ve taken from the big city suckers. And that’s your movie, right? It turns out that the reason that the small town people are so unfailingly kind and warm and simple seeming around is these extremely half dimensional, rotten political consultant figures is that it’s The Truman Show that they’re just pretending to have an election and pretending to be nice to them because they’re manipulating them.
S4: Right. But in spite of that manipulation and what would appear to be cynicism, the end does also seem to revert to this rosy view of Small-Town rural life. Right. Because what does the city do with all this superPAC money that they’ve raised? But funnel it into all these utopian projects. And the last time you see Chris Cooper and his daughter, they’re, you know, consulting on how to build a senior home and they’re going to have all sorts of social services paid for with a superPAC said that movie has the strange oscillation between, you know, a kind of rosy utopian idealism about small towns and this really thoroughgoing cynicism that everybody has an angle in a game including, you know, those who seem to be speaking up for the heartland.
S1: Part of what’s so irritating about the movie, though, is that it doesn’t even view that as cynical. It’s like they’re being manipulative because they’re too good for politics.
S4: Yeah, is that what you mean, Sam, when you say in your review this is a sentence I wanted to ask you about, you say at one point, but Stuart, isn’t that much of a cynic or even enough of one. And I know a lot of almost every critic has disliked this movie, which makes me feel a bit sad for Jon Stewart. But, you know, he made it. He asked for it. But most in regard the movie as too cynical. This idea of yours that he isn’t quite cynical enough. It was that was interesting to me. Can you elaborate on that?
S5: Right. I mean, I do think it goes in both directions. Yeah. I mean, there is the idea that, you know, these small town people are still just kind of, you know, noble and good and taking advantage of the big, bad Washington people in order to just bring some money to their town, which needs it. But this is also a system he’s positing as something in which really the only option is to exploit its corruption to your own advantage. There’s no way to reform the system. You can only exploit it to your own benefit. All you can do is kind of fuck people over in a way that benefit yourself and maybe doesn’t harm other people all that much, or at least only harms, you know, the right people who kind of deserve it. There’s no improvement here and there’s certainly no dealing with so many of the root issues. At the rise of this political culture that it’s documenting, which, you know, is about money but is also about a lot of other things that the movie doesn’t deal with, and I find that kind of depressing and draining in a way. Really?
S4: Yeah. This movie does a thing which comedy should never do, which is leave you with less energy than you went in. There’s something about the place that it leaves you. I mean, in regard to the characters in the story and also just to its larger comment on politics, that’s this just sort of like, is that all there is?
S1: You know, it’s deflating just in terms of the movie itself. Right. Because of all the action has been put on that you’ve been sitting through it and like, who even cares? It seems just totally deflating in every way.
S5: I’m not a person who feels like, you know, satire, you know, political art or whatever. You want to call this a very kind of feeble and denatured example of I don’t necessarily feel like it needs to like, you know, leave you on an up note or provide a solution or anything like that. I mean, I think you can just do really sort of, you know, caustic, cynical across the board. Everything is screwed and we’re all gonna die hard, partly just as a personal expression, but also as a sort of there’s an urgency to that. If you do it right, this is how things are going to be if we don’t change things. But there’s something about this movie was also cynical and also very flatly accepting, you know, things are bad and messed up. But it’s also kind of like this, you know, like genial Small-Town comedy. And if things are actually as bad as this movie says they are. That’s not kind of like how things are terrible kind of way. That’s like that should be the Jon Stewart that we remember where he’s, like, yelling into camera three because they’re not, you know, funding medical relief bills for 9/11 first responders or something. That that’s you know, those are the moments that often made The Daily Show’s so galvanizing when Jon Stewart just got mad and a really impassioned way. And that fired just like isn’t in this movie anyway. And I really miss it.
S4: Yeah, I think that’s what I mean about the training. I mean, of course, it isn’t that every comedy, especially political satire, should end on an up. No, not at all. And as you say, Preston Sturges and I think also Frank Capra are somewhere in the DNA of this movie. Those films. Preston Sturges could go really dark and Armando Iannucci now can go really dark. But his movies can still leave you, as you say, feeling in some way galvanized or at least sort of passionate in your your anger and disgust end.
S1: And this movie does kind of limp to so much more of a one conclusion, the movie that this left me thinking about, this movie that I loved when it came out nearly 25 years ago, which is Reginald Hudlin is the Great White Hope, my favorite boxing movie of all time. I don’t know if you remember the movie at all.
S5: I haven’t seen it. Have you, Sam? I have not. I remember it existing.
S1: But yet the premise is Samuel L. Jackson is basically Don King. There’s a heavyweight champion who is easily winning all those fights is avoiding the consequential fight with the real challenger. But the ratings are dropping. None of those fights are interesting. So they go and find a white guy who beat him in Golden Gloves once and is now like a vegetarian, pacifist punk band frontman and turn him into a boxer again so that they can have a race war heavyweight match. Jeff Goldblum starts out as a crusading reporter, exposing the corruption of the boxing game. And then he’s in self drawn into it to the extent that he tries to become the manager of the white guy. You know, he has a whole scheme where when the white guy wins, he’s going to manage and take over. But of course, unlike in this movie, there’s no twist. The twist is that after all the build up, he gets his aspy swiftly. The twist is that everything is how it looks like it’s going to be. And that allows it to be a much more biting commentary on the world that it explores than this movie. The thing about the movie is that it just goes from A to a. That’s part of the nature of having to sit and twist. Right. Nobody learns anything. Nobody is corrupted by anything. Colonel Jack isn’t at all affected by becoming a national TV celebrity in the course of his campaign. The big money doesn’t make anyone do anything they wouldn’t do even before the twist. He’s getting all the PAC money. The righteous carnal jack. By just going and telling the people how much you despise is their money. It’s a tale of money and politics that somehow doesn’t incorporate any corruption. I don’t know. It’s just you’re telling the story without anyone being a moral agent. It’s an interesting kind of way.
S4: Right? Well, and there I think you get to something beyond and we’ve talked about this because this movie presents itself so much as a political allegory and wants you to talk a bit on that level. We’ve really approached it that way. But where it really falls short is in telling a story. Right, and writing dialogue and having good characterizations. And that’s the place where, for example, the Chris Cooper. Character, I mean, Chris Cooper stipulated Chris Cooper is perfect for this role, right? It’s a great idea to cast him as something like this because he has both that sort of, you know, rural Middle America appeal, but also also a sense that he’s always that he’s hiding something or that he you know, that he is a clever strategist behind the scenes. He’s got that kind of canniness behind his eyes. It’s beautiful casting. And if that character had been better written, then, yes, as you say, Tom, what you would see would be how does it affect this, you know, small town truth teller to be swept up into this meet John Doe style narrative. Right. I mean, that’s the story that this reminded me of is the the Frank Capra movie where Gary Cooper kind of becomes a similar symbol from the heartland, who gets manipulated in all kinds of ways by the media, but also stipulated meet John Doe’s an infinitely better and smarter movie than this. And part of the reason why is because it’s telling the story of, you know, perhaps a fanciful tale that could never really happen in political reality, but of real characters that are real people that are affected by the world around them. And maybe that goes to what I was saying about this taking place during the Trump administration and yet not seeming to be affected. Right. I mean, every single household in America has been affected by the things going on in D.C., but this movie takes place in a bubble that seems to be completely removed from that reality.
S5: Right. I mean, what we’re using Jon Stewart’s movie as an opportunity to recommend much better movies, one that this reminded me of, in a way, is a 2005 documentary about Rachel Boydton called Our Brand is Crisis, which is about the presidential election in Bolivia, the one that Evo Morales ended up losing. Where the winning candidate hires James Carville’s firm to come down and consult on his election. And that’s that’s a story about a Democratic political operative coming into a sort of fragile democracy and firing and just ruining it with American techniques, completely subverting the will of the people running this total bullshit campaign, you know, allegedly in the version of some sort of neo liberal capitalist democracy or whatever. But just like fucking up the whole country with these, like, horrible Washington techniques and reflecting back on how much those techniques have done damage to the US as well. Irresistable is probably never going to go there, but it would, you know, similarly sort of alien environment, because movies are treats rural Wisconsin as if it’s as foreign a place as Bolivia and seems to know as much about it as as James Carville does about South America as well.
S4: Right. Even though that is one of the structuring jokes of the movie, is that the political operatives, you know, carpet bagging their way into the town don’t really understand the town in a constantly condescending to everyone. Right. But the movie doesn’t seem to be aware that it, too, is falling into the same trap. But again, this movie is trapping us. Do we keep on talking about it as this heavy, awkward political allegory? That it is, but it is also a comedy. And I’m just curious. Was there anything in this movie that made you laugh? Was there any thread that you thought had it been developed, would have made you laugh? Where did you find or recognize any of Jon Stewart’s actual ability to make people laugh, which at least for me, back when The Daily Show was on, you know, he really could. And I thought he was one of the things that got me through the Bush administration. I watch that show every night. I was really sad when he went off the air on it. And I can point to a couple things in this movie that had they been developed more, had there been roads that had gone down, would have made me laugh.
S1: But I want to hear what yours are part of what goes on with evaluating Jon Stewart as filmmakers. And he really doesn’t settle into a tone very well. Partly it’s I think that he’s trying to square the whole Truman Show problem of how this what you see isn’t what’s really happening. He tends not to to stay in one register very well. And so there are occasional moments where he strays into a different register. That’s a better register. There’s this really sort of horrifying scene where a billionaire mega donor shows up. He’s like some publicly calling the rocket guy or something. He’s obviously got tech money and he’s comatose and strapped into a robotic exoskeleton that’s like lumbering into the cafe. And then he lurches awake to babble out something and then passes out again. And the whole idea is that he’s coming to make sure that Colonel Jack is a staunch enough supporter of Israel. Right. And that which, you know, brings up the stories that I’ve read. It’s like people walking through the, like, dog crapped covered carpets and Sheldon Adelson is hideaway to get him to get the money right. This vision of like the plutocracy as genuinely deranged and forcing people into this medieval kind of servitude toward the noble class that actually rules us. You know, that’s. So that was a vision of some really horrible dystopian reality that’s much more compelling than all this goofball Small-Town stuff. So that, you know, there was that there was a moment when CNN breaks out the door box, a grid of. Well, pundits who are like half of whom are encouraged to be talking over each other at once.
S4: That was going to be mine. That scene made me laugh. And then it struck a little bit the tone of The Daily Show. Just the idea that what talk TV consists of is, you know, sicking entire groups of people and other groups to to all talk at the same time.
S1: Yeah, I mean, it just depressed white noise. It was that was kind of glorious. You made a whole movie. There was there was like that. I wouldn’t be complaining about whether their characterization was realistic enough.
S5: What are the things that jumped out for me? This is really just a moment of pure comedy that kind of has nothing to do with political commentary and is maybe why it works. As I said before, Rose Byrne plays Steve Carell is kind of Republican operative. She is this, you know, sort of rail thin elaborately, you know, quaffed and made up, you know, power bitch consultants, who is, of course, the two of them are also like kind of secretly hot for each other in a certain way. So she shows up in town kind of airdrops into there and just immediately tells searchingly, Steve Gorell, all the various ways that he’s gonna get his ass completely handed to him. And she’s having this initial conversation with him. He’s sitting in the small town coffee shop that he’s grown very fond of and she’s kind of whispering in his ear on the way out. And then she goes in for what looks like she’s gonna give him a peck on the cheek and then just licks his face, totally deadpan. And that walked out. And that’s that’s not really like a sensible moment in the context of the movie. But it’s also like I mean, I’m such a huge Rosebury and fan of almost everything she does. And it’s one of the few moments this movie uses her so badly, gives her almost nothing to do. And that’s one of the few moments where you feel like Jon Stewart, which is like he really is like just do something funny here. Or she was like, hey, can I just try something? And came up with this brilliant, weird thing that, I mean, doesn’t even really fit in the rest of the movie. There are a couple of moments like that. There’s one part where Steve Carell. I can’t remember the context, but he’s in a sort of Chris Cooper’s campaign headquarters, which is just like somebody’s kitchen table, and he throws a fit and then he just kind of is going around the room riffing on stuff. There’s all these, like, jump cuts in there. At one point he’s talking about like the collection of decorative spoons. It’s hung on the wall and it just is completely out of tone, out of kilter with the rest of the movie. And it’s very clearly like we’re kind of dead here, like Steve, just do some funny stuff or figure out what to do it later. But it is also just like, okay, like thankfully there’s some comedy in here, at least a lot of it doesn’t doesn’t fit the movie. But since I don’t like what the movie is, for the most part, that, that doesn’t bother me as much.
S4: Yeah. That scene, that scene where he starts riffing about things, including the spoons on the wall. Steve Carell himself is funnier. But that was the first moment that I thought is pretty early in the movie. And I thought, directorially, this movie does not know what it’s doing because the way that that was cut together as essentially a bunch of jump cuts. Right. That made it really clear that that it was improvisation just seemed very artless. And it was a moment that I was I was very aware that there was an extremely skilled comedian, you know, one who obviously has worked with Jon Stewart a lot in the past. And they get each other senses of humor, who was riffing on set in a way that was funny and that the director didn’t know how to harness that energy into, you know, incorporating it into the story instead. That felt like a bunch of bloopers, you know, outtakes that might go at the end of a of a sitcom and then in the credits or something. So it was a combination of, yes, there’s some actual humor happening somewhere on set. And, oh, boy, you know, this is really not going anywhere good. I completely agree that both Bill Irwin, which is the name of the actor, a great clown, great sort of theatrical clown who plays that billionaire in the exoskeleton. And the moment of Rose Byrne licking Steve Kraals face stood out because they didn’t seem to belong in a good way. I mean, those were moments of actual imagination, right? They were actual kind of grotesque inventions that either occurred on set that Rose Byrne improvised the licking or, you know, it was just a crazy moment that it occurred to Jon Stewart. I almost Elon Musk like. Right. Like, what if a billionaire, would it be some sort of half robotic, you know, cyber being that just was it was controlled by remote control. And those things didn’t belong in a good way. Right. They couldn’t they couldn’t be incorporated into this really schematic, formulaic narrative about campaign finance reform. And that was what made them good. But it also just made them lonely. Outliers in the rest of the movie.
S5: Right. As you say. And it just gives you the sense of this movie is is not only doesn’t know what it’s doing, which is really desperate, like especially the way that Steve Carell scene is put together, is just so from hunger. And you can see either Jon Stewart, his editor, or just sitting in the room and be like, man, this thing is dead. Like, we’ve got to goose it just, you know. Is there anything we can use?
S4: Yeah, right. And a lot of good performers is also standing around not getting enough to do right. I mean, in the opening credits, I was still excited for the movie here. Here’s that Bob Seger song into the credits with the black and white montage of old campaign snapshots. And I was sort of keeping my hopes high still. And then you see in the credits, oh, Natasha Leone is going to be in this. And Bill Irwin, who plays that billionaire tofor Grace, is in it as this Polster, this guy who you know, who who is brought in for data analysis. And all of those people are really gifted and could have had actual characters and actual scenes, and especially Natasha Leone, right. I mean, just somebody who I’m sure could be let loose on set and come up with a million great ideas, but they all, to me, could have been played by just any generic headshot that had been sent in.
S1: I’d forgotten that they were even in there until you reminded them, because they’re they’re the characters that they’re playing don’t really even do much with the purpose of Natasha. This character is to like set up one incredibly wheezy thing, where she targets a group of single women for abortion rights messaging. And then it turns out that the group of single women she’s targeting are nuns like, ha ha.
S5: Right. They’re just jokes about how he’s the pollster. She is like the data analysis analytics person. And the idea is that they’re working in a community where when they’re doing polls and they’re saying the margin of error, the margin of error is like literally eight people that they can identify by name. I mean, it’s like, oh, we think Justine is trending Republican and that there’s her big city techniques are so out of kilter with what should be just this grassroots politics of just, you know, going door to door, go into, you know, fish fries and clam bakes and talking to people one on one. But they’re so, you know, caught up in their high flung computers and they can’t grasp what the reality on the ground is. But it’s just it’s gone a long way around the block for a very toothless ad like 20 years old joke.
S4: Yeah, they’re there to stand for ideas rather than to to be characters or even make jokes, really, of any kind. So we keep on talking about how this movie is all ideas and and no sort of emotion and or character interest that becomes really explicit at the end when for the first time we not see but hear Jon Stewart himself, his familiar voice, doing an interview in the final credits, basically in the middle of the song Rolling same Bob Seger song is from the beginning. He suddenly appears and starts interviewing a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, I believe. And Tom, I think you had something to say about that moment.
S1: I mean, that’s just where no matter how disappointed you may already be, the movie just sacrifices any claim it could possibly have on goodwill. He turns it into a lecture. You’re sitting at the point where a more enthusiastic comic filmmaker might be showing you the best outtakes, you know, or like tacking on a little hilarious coda or something. And it’s just him having somebody who isn’t even an active player in the system anymore. Telling you about, once again, this background fact that there sure is too much money in politics. There really, really is too much money. There’s money in politics. The people who spend the money, you’re not accountable to you. And that money in politics deforms our system. And this is a real problem. And Jon Stewart is going to interview this guy about it to tell you that there’s too much money in politics at the end of a movie that was supposed to be about how bad money in politics is already. It’s just it’s the opposite of a joke. It’s just hammering, joylessly away. That’s the thing that the movie ought to have already sold you on.
S5: The idea that at that point in the movie, it’s possible for you not to know what it’s about. When there were like big speeches about like money in politics and how it needs to go to people in small towns and we trick you fancy watching people and whatever. And the idea that I mean, like Jon Stewart worried you might not have gotten the message at that point is probably more hilarious than anything that’s actually in the movie.
S4: Yeah, it’s almost like why didn’t his loved ones take him aside and tell him, you know. I mean, there is nothing that will kill the message of your message movie faster than having it just essentially nailed to the door. Like Martin Luther’s 95 theses during the closing credits sequence does call Western Union.
S1: Yeah, it’s not as loved ones. It’s like it’s a window into whatever process he managed to create for making this movie. Clearly, somebody should’ve been like, man, it’s not working. It’s just bringing the whole thing down. And the movie from end to end clearly did not have somebody being in a position to tell him what wasn’t working.
S4: All right. Rarely have I hosted a slate spoiler special where everyone agreed so completely and joylessly about the movie. And so that maybe drained energy from our conversation as well. I blame the movie for that fact.
S1: Well, you know, Jon Stewart long ago famously indicted the whole CROSSFIRE theory of needing to have people angry each other to produce compelling television, making people argue just for the sake of argument that was poisoning our politics and dragging it down. So he forced CROSSFIRE off the air.
S5: So glad that we all the grass.
S4: Exactly. Yeah. Yeah. We don’t have any three people to talk at once, you know, defending the movie. On the other side, one thing I will say is that I don’t know what Jon Stewart is going to do next, but I hope that he does not go down the road of becoming a filmmaker. And I wouldn’t have said that after Rosewater. I think although it felt, you know, in some ways like a first film, it was at least unexpected. You would not have necessarily expected him to make a movie about an Iranian hostage situation. And it had a nice performance by Gael Garcia Bernal. It had some moments of directorial, if not elegance, at least sort of taste. So the fact that he’s gone downhill pretty far downhill with his second attempt kind of makes me hope that while I’d like to see him in the public eye, I would like to see him doing something in entertainment. I really hope that is not filmmaking with the two of you. Agree?
S1: I might take the opposite lesson. What it showed is that he’s been out of the political commentary game too long and maybe you should just make me reason, stop trying to do the thing that he used to do every night and is now doing in slow motion.
S4: Right. So he should step with the filmmaking part, but not with a with any political content.
S1: Yeah. Maybe he needs to actually stay on top of the news to do political commentary. Maybe it’s better suited for the medium of television.
S5: I mean, I would sort of go in the opposite direction, say, you know, The Daily Show was in so many ways kind of such an extraordinary factory or like, you know, talent scouting being on. There’s so many people who kind of, you know, came out of that environment. Emmy Corral himself, pallbearers, may be John Oliver, some Manaj, Larry Wilmore, all these incredible people. And, you know, Jon Stewart has, you know, with one whose Comedy Central, he put people on the show helping other people get at their shows. He really, you know, did a lot of good things to do as a as a producer, as an enabler. And I think maybe that’s where he should be focusing his energies now or at least be putting as much effort into that as he is into making news pretty sort of innocuous and not especially noteworthy in movies. I mean, if he could do, you know, a tenth of what Brad Pitt has done with his, you know, Plan B production company, I think that might be Jon Stewart’s best chance to put, you know, more good stuff into the world. And if there’s a, you know, comic equivalent of Steve McQueen or Barry Jenkins, whose next movie, Jon Stewart, can help get made. I would really love it if he would do that.
S4: A comic equivalent of Steve McQueen. That’s I’m just pondering that concept, possibly humorous filmmaker out there.
S5: It was not about a scripted line. I guess you could get the point.
S4: All right. Well, in spite of the fact that none of us laughed at this movie except for maybe two scenes, I hope that both of you will come back and spoil another movie with me sometime because it was spent talking to you about it.
S6: Thank you, Dana. Yes. Thanks. Well, that’s it for this late spoiler special. We hope you will subscribe to the Slate spoiler special podcast feed. And if you like the show, please read it and review it in the Apple podcast store or wherever you get your podcast. That really helps people find us and helps to support the show. If you have any suggestions for movies or TV shows, you would like us to spoil or other feedback to share. You can send it to spoilers at Slocomb. Our producer today was Rosemary Bellson. For Sam Adams and Tom Pscholka, I’m Dana Stevens. Thanks for listening and talk to you soon.