“Irresistible” is a movie of the moment. Unfortunately, that moment is 2015.
Amusingly snarky on its surface, angrily concerned beneath, and surprisingly soft at the bottom, this small-town political satire from writer-director Jon Stewart works hard to be a Frank Capra movie for the 21st century — just one that bites a little harder. It’s well-played and well-intended, and the underlying moral — that our electoral system has become hopelessly corrupted by money and a 24-hour media machine — is hard to argue with. It also seems slightly beside the point as the current administration careens toward the brick wall of November amid protests and pathogens. A civics lesson is fine, but have you noticed the schoolhouse is on fire?
Still, the movie (which arrives on streaming services after a May theatrical release was canceled) is diverting for most of its run-time, and it’s beautifully cast. Steve Carell happily sinks his teeth into the role of Gary Zimmer, a Democratic campaign strategist still reeling from the 2016 debacle at the polls. Smart, slick, and deeply out of touch with the America beyond the Beltway, he still hopes to find the mythic progressive heartland voter. When a video goes viral of Wisconsin farmer and ex-Marine Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper, invaluable as always) passionately defending the have-nots at a town meeting, Gary is off to Deerlaken to coax the man into running for mayor.
Unbelievable? Sure. But there’s some “Northern Exposure”-style humor to be had in Zimmer’s collision with Midwesterners who are hardly the hicks he thinks they are, and when the national GOP dispatches a campaign strategist to back Jack’s opponent, a smug Republican incumbent (Brent Sexton), “Irresistible” heats up in interesting if predictable ways. The GOP strategist, Faith Brewster, is a ruthless scorched-earth fighter played by the gifted Rose Byrne with not quite enough flesh on the character’s bones; Faith remains a funny cartoon but a cartoon nonetheless, while Carell’s anti-heroic hero is a much more rounded figure.
The not-enough-to-do issue extends to Topher Grace and Natasha Lyonne as two of Gary’s top people, the former trusting the polls and the latter trusting demographics and her gut (which admittedly leads to a pretty decent gag involving a bunch of nuns). And the character of Jack’s wary, wise daughter (Mackenzie Davis) — yes, the farmer’s daughter — is left unfocused for reasons that only become clear at the end.
In the 16 years he served as its host and figurehead, Stewart and “The Daily Show” refined a fresh attitude toward the political circus: cauterizingly funny but with an undercurrent of anger and righteous disbelief. It’s been a long five years since the comedian handed the show to Trevor Noah, but before then Stewart looked like the last sane man in America, and a generation came of age trusting his take more than any elected official. It’s hard to not let that go to your head, and in “Irresistible” you can feel Stewart resisting the urge to climb on a soapbox until the very end, when a plot twist comes along that re-aligns everything we’ve seen and allows the lectures to commence.
The twist, clever if far-fetched, has the effect of turning the movie’s main character into its biggest liability: Gary isn’t there to fix the problem, Gary is the problem. That’s an interesting talking point that proves nearly fatal as drama, hamstringing the momentum that Stewart and his cast have capably built up. “Irresistible” is a shell game that wants to entertain us until it’s time to make us think, but it doesn’t say anything we don’t already know, and in mid-2020 the issues Stewart raises are so far down the to-do list that the movie comes across as naive. Maybe it’s time the last sane man in America went a little nuts.
Written and directed by Jon Stewart. Starring Steve Carell, Rose Byrne, Chris Cooper, Mackenzie Davis. Available on demand through all major platforms. 101 minutes. R (as PG-13: language including sexual references)