Jon Stewart’s political satire Irresistible is not very funny, but I don’t think it’s meant to be. There’s something more important going on here than rib tickling.
Stewart shows off his ability to depict characters whose appearances seem to verge on caricature, but who nevertheless reveal complex, conflict-beset human cores — and he does it best with the film’s most important character: the segment of the U.S. population known as “rural America.”
What’s on display is the blatant manipulation of a bunch of stereotypical rubes, but the discerning viewer soon realizes there’s a whole lot more rumbling beneath the surface.
The 1950s Are Calling
At first glance Irresistible comes across as a quaint little movie oddly behind the times. It seems surprisingly naïve to be the product of Jon Stewart’s razor-sharp mind. The man has been away for too long, one might be tempted to think. He’s spent too much time on the farm.
Set in the fictional rural Wisconsin town of Deerlaken, sometime after the 2016 elections — but seemingly a century before the pandemic and the attendant social and economic upheavals of 2020 — the story focuses on a Democratic Party operative’s effort to turn a mayoral campaign into a national referendum on liberal versus conservative views.
His goal isn’t necessarily to win the election — it’s to excite the kind of interest that will bolster turnout. If it works, it could be a winning liberal strategy for bigger elections in the future. After all, with just a few more votes where they mattered, Hillary Clinton would have won the presidency.
“We get a lesson in what people really care about, and the monstrosity of a system that will never care back.”
Once Gary Zimmer, played by Steve Carell, gets the ball rolling, Republican strategists take the bait, which is essential to “DC Gary’s” master plan. The more the RNC spends to bolster the incumbent mayor — who runs on a “Deerlaken Always” platform that basically promises to preserve the status quo — the more liberal East Coast Democrats are willing to fund the campaign of the Democratic Party’s upstart, Col. Jack Hastings, played by Chris Cooper.
The small town becomes the focal point of a no-holds-barred brawl between conservatives, led by campaign manager Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne), and the town’s newly minted liberals, led by the brash DC Gary. (Let it be said here that the effort to create sexual sparks between Gary and Faith, perhaps to send up the famous liberal/conservative marriage of James Carville and Mary Matalin, was about as effective as striking a match on a wet matchbox.)
As fundraising funnels more and more money into the contest, campaign wizards descend on Deerlaken with all their trappings. What started with a small group of local volunteers ineptly manning a phone bank turns into a finely tuned machine, complete with data analysts, slick ads, and shameless manipulation of the media. For its part, the media is all too willing to join the party. Several super PACs are set up to manage the campaign’s burgeoning wealth.
One of the film’s worse missteps occurs when Stewart takes the notion of misspent wealth to a startling extreme with the depiction of an Elon Musk-type billionaire in an Iron Man-type suit. The suit does little more than carry its decrepit inhabitant upright. The scene left me feeling the same kind of sick I feel whenever the notorious clip of the U.S. president mocking a disabled man pops up. It’s a short scene, though — grit your teeth and watch on.
Mini Culture War
The people of Deerlaken are a Norman Rockwell painting come alive, in that they’re comically wide-eyed and friendly. They literally push sugar. At first, I was disappointed at the absence of a Wisconsin accent and colloquialisms, which are very distinctive and flavorful. However, that would have shone a spotlight on a particular subculture. I expect Stewart meant for the townsfolk to represent the American heartland in general.
Deerlaken is hurting financially, and those who join the Democratic cause seem to think Col. Jack can turn things around through the force of his personality. A laconic ex-military man with a heart of gold, Jack apparently didn’t realize he was a Democrat until DC Gary explained his values to him.
The candidate’s daughter, Diana Hastings, played by Mackenzie Davis, seems to be the outlier among the countryfolk. Fresh-faced and smart, she sees through Gary’s machinations, but she goes along because she’d do just about anything for her dad.
The citizens who close ranks behind the incumbent Republican Mayor Braun are driven mainly by fear of change, it seems. The town has been red for as long as anyone can remember, and even the threat of economic torpor isn’t as bad as the threat of Deerlaken going blue.
Snapped Out of Complacency
The race plays out in the formulaic way that many other campaign films have handled such dramas, with the underdog edging closer to what will be a nail-biting finish. It’s only near the conclusion of this amusing but lightweight fare that it starts becoming clear that Stewart has been playing us all along.
We’ve been distracted by the soft-pedal jokes, the tropes and the byplay, and by the earnest characters always on the edge of, but not quite slipping into, full caricature. As the plot’s climax approaches, we’re like guests ready to leave a children’s party, waiting for the blindfolded birthday girl to spin around and hit the piñata. Instead we get a lesson in what people really care about, and the monstrosity of a system that will never care back.
It’s not a kid swinging a stick at a piñata after all. It’s Lady Liberty hefting her torch at a bloated tumorous thing. When she strikes hard it explodes. Its innards float down to earth and assemble themselves like the pieces of a puzzle, clicking together to show us exactly what’s at the core of so many of this country’s wounds. The irresistible thing we can’t seem to resist is exposed in all its radioactive malice.
Under Our Skin
“Sometimes good people have to do shitty things for the greater good,” Gary counsels Jack and Diana, when it appears victory requires just that.
Stewart demands that we consider, at least, which shitty things are justifiable, done to whom, and for what ends. He flirts with the idea that good people might be able to give up doing shitty things altogether.
As Quentin Tarantino does in one of his greatest films, Stewart tells a fairy tale. While Tarantino’s defiance of reality soars, Stewart’s is grounding. He has a different purpose. He’s showing us that reality might still have a fighting chance.
In Irresistible, Stewart does something deft, beguiling and revelatory. He deconstructs a state of affairs that’s laughable because it’s so crazy, and dangerous because so few people see it for what it really is.
If the jokes were punched up, we might still be laughing instead of thinking.