Irresistible, writer/director Jon Stewart’s populist political satire—half Frank Capra and half Adam McKay—begins a couple of months after the Democrats’ shocking presidential election defeat. NPR-listenin’, arugula-salad-eatin’ Democratic strategist Gary (Steve Carrell) is desperate for a candidate who can bridge the ever-widening gap between his party and the white working class. He finds his knight in shining overalls in a small town Wisconsin farmer named Jack (Chris Cooper), whose viral video railing against his local government’s racist ID policies represents a messianic miracle: a distinguished army veteran and man of the soil, passionately supporting liberal ideals.
Gary jumps in a rented SUV/tank to “fit in” with the locals and heads to Deerlaken, Wisconsin to convince Jack to run for mayor on the Democratic ticket. Once in town, where half the storefronts are boarded up due to economic desperation, Gary walks into what he thinks is the local watering hole, and orders what he thinks is the all-‘murican meal: a burger and a Budweiser. The bartender looks annoyed before he leaves the bar and comes back with his order. Why did he leave? Because he works in a German pub that offers only draft beer and sausages. Is Gary happy? Fuck no. He hates burgers and Buds, and is ordering them because he thinks it’s the rural simpleton thing to do. After all, he needs to pander to this crowd in order to convince them to vote for Jack. One side is irritated, and the other depressed because they got something they didn’t even want. All of that money and energy spent to solve nothing and satisfy no one.
When Gary pumps an ungodly amount of SuperPAC money into the mayoral election of such a tiny town, he attracts the attention of vicious Republican strategist Faith (Rose Byrne), who in turn raises millions to support incumbent Mayor Braun (Brent Sexton). Thus, the most unnecessarily roided-up pissing match in American political history begins. In it, Stewart seems honest about the Democratic establishment’s complete lack of sympathy and compassion towards rural America during non-election times, pretending to be on the side of the blue-collar schlub when there are votes to be harvested, ghosting them when they truly need help. Republicans, on the other hand, treat the whole enterprise as a sociopathic videogame where the candidate who snatches the most gold coins and makes the most liberals cry is the ultimate winner. Faith, supported by a chilling performance by Byrne, attaches every sexual urge to this game. In Stewart’s world, and it’s hard not to agree with this, Democrats use the people as pawns, while Republicans throw a bunch of Bibles and American flags at people and tell them to shut their pie holes while the big boys play.
Stewart seems to have a lot of fun skewering the shallowness of our politics in a way that resembles some of the best gags from his tenure at The Daily Show. An ad for Gary just shows him shooting a machine gun into a lake for 30 seconds. An attack ad randomly splices in stock footage of monkeys going wild. While ranting about Gary’s “socialist evil,” Fox News superimposes the early 2000s video of Al-Qaeda terrorists on monkey bars. CNN opens a Hollywood Squares size panel of “experts” and has its members bicker and talk over one each other.
Still, Stewart focuses a majority of his narrative on the town’s problems, with Jack’s no-nonsense daughter Diana (MacKenzie Davis) serving as the moral anchor of the piece. Stewart’s Capra side—idealistic, shown when he went above and beyond to secure health funding for 9/11 first responders—clashes effectively with his political cynicism, pointing out how real lives are at stake while those in power are wrapped up in their Game of Thrones cosplay. This existential conflict between the political animals and the townspeople climaxes with some glorious poetic justice; it’s hard enough for a filmmaker to pull off a tonal shift, but to reveal your movie to have been a completely different genre all along, that takes serious ambition.
Unfortunately, Irresistible tries to emulate Adam McKay’s scattershot fourth wall breaking style a bit too much. Some of these asides are poignant and fit the film’s flow—like when we get to hear Gary and Faith’s inner monologues at press briefings, openly declaring how much they love lying to the public—but some, like a bunch of visual pranks on the audience, don’t land, stylistic flourishes that end up feeling underdeveloped. Pleasantly surprising, though, is the lack of a Trump presence in Stewart’s script. Trump exists as POTUS in this universe, but he’s rarely mentioned, and none of the townspeople are seen wearing MAGA hats. This might be a subtle way for Stewart to express that our problems will not just go away when Trump does. It’s a frank and vital message for our cold civil war era.
Director: Jon Stewart
Writer: Jon Stewart
Starring: Steve Carell, Rose Byrne, Chris Cooper, Mackenzie Davis, Brent Sexton, Topher Grace
Release Date: June 26, 2020
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.