It’s no surprise to me that I ended up loving Irresistible, the second feature, as writer and director, from former Daily Show honcho Jon Stewart. Because Stewart and I are very much simpatico politically and culturally, and I despair that he ever left The Daily Show — we really could have used his caustic disappointed-optimist cynicism during the Trump era.
What is surprising to me is that Irresistible somehow failed to make any cultural impression in 2020, in the midst of the election that was either going to oust Donald Trump or reinstall him in the White House probably forever (or would have just felt like that, anyway). The movie had to bypass cinemas because of the coronavirus pandemic, but it landed directly on VOD in June, just as the presidential election was really heating up… and just as everyone was getting really tired of being stuck in lockdown and was in need of some diversion. What happened? This zinger of a comedy is so perfectly, beautifully Stewart-y, much more so than his first feature, Rosewater: Irresistible is big and brash; raging with fury at the state of American politics but also underlain with hope that it might be changed for the better. It should have at least struck a chord with online snarksters like myself. And yet… crickets.
Did viewers merely give up on it too soon? It’s true that Irresistible is a slow-burn of a movie that, if you stop watching halfway through, could seem like a jaundiced one-joke wonder. Not that it’s any great chore to stick with it! And not that its (apparent, at first) one joke isn’t one that needs to be heard, in a laugh-until-you-cry sort of way. Even before you see where Stewart is going, it’s already perfectly plain that — as one character says toward the end of the film — “this system, the way we elect people, it’s terrifying, and exhausting, and I think it’s driving us all insane.”
Long before it gets to its sucker punch of a finale, Irresistible is already making that thesis. This is the tale of Steve Carell’s (Welcome to Marwen, Beautiful Boy) Gary Zimmer, who works to get Democrats elected, and in the wake of Trump’s 2016 “win,” he is dejected, yet keyed up to find a way for the party to appeal to those voters who, it would seem, found something appealing in Trump. So when he learns — via a YouTube video of a small-town civic meeting — about a gun-toting former-Marine farmer in rural Wisconsin who espouses some middle-of-the-road, slightly progressive opinions, such as “let’s not hate on immigrants who are essential members of our community,” Gary leaps into action to persuade Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper: Little Women, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood) to run for mayor of his little town. With an eye toward expanding this project across the country in time for 2020.
We can presume that Gary might indeed hold some liberal opinions himself, but this is all a game to him, no matter how much he might be telling himself otherwise. That becomes clear when the Republican national organization starts to take an interest in this little election and sends Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne: Mrs America, Like a Boss), Gary’s right-wing counterpart, to help Jack’s opponent, incumbent Mayor Braun (Brent Sexton: The Belko Experiment, W.). This election, otherwise inconsequential except to the few thousand people who live in this town, becomes a not-at-all-hidden metaphor for the Red Queen–ing of money in American politics, the never-ending, always escalating race to outspend one’s opponent as the only way to win an election.
Absolutely everything about the bullshit of this “system” of electing our leaders comes in for a bashing in Irresistible, from big money massaged by unaccountable super PACs, to the use of focus groups to hone candidates’ platforms and messages, to the complicity of the mass media in the quagmire of it all. The title of the film is doing a lot of heavy lifting here, working on multiple levels. Is it money that is irresistible to politics and politicians, or the other way around? Is this a satirical rom-com, pitting — in the eyes of Gary — nasty, snakish, but very much his match Faith against the wholesome, straightforward charms of Diana (Mackenzie Davis: Happiest Season, The Turning), Jack’s daughter and roped-in campaign manager? Which woman is irresistible to Gary? Is Stewart suggesting that this deeply entrenched way of funneling people into political office is simply not open to resistance from the electorate? There certainly is much that is dystopian under the sharp-as-hell humor here, starting with the death-of-a-thousand-cuts that Jack and Diana’s hometown is being subjected to: half the small downtown is boarded up, and the military base that had contributed to a once-thriving local economy is long gone. Is this an inescapable microcosm of America at large? Or are there openings to game the system from the other side… and could that be what’s irresistible, once you see the possibilities there?
Ultimately, Irresistible plugs into preconceptions and prejudices about rural America only to push back against them with the same broad humor that it uses to bash the (alleged) urban sophistication of Gary and Faith. And it does not concede that ordinary Americans are helpless in the face of the nightmare it depicts. Be sure to watch through the credits… and be sure to take onboard Stewart’s suggestion that Americans have more in common than the divisions that are whipped up by the most disillusioned among us would suggest, and that those manipulations are very much at the root of what we, as a nation, are getting wrong. As always with polemics like Irresistible, nothing here is news to anyone who has been paying attention. But Stewart puts it all together with such panache that he sucks us in anyway, perhaps most notably in how he dares to find notes of optimism, however farfetched and unlikely, amongst the doom and gloom.