Irresistible Review by Ronnie Gardocki and Dr. Daniel Daughhetee
This is normally a space to discuss more benign subjects such as bad comic books and police procedurals about serial rapists, but I thought the film Irresistible worthy of going relatively off format. Jon Stewart was the perfect comedy pillar of the Bush years: he and his staff would regularly lampoon the Bush administration as callous thugs and incompetent ne’erdowells. He got Crossfire cancelled! (Tucker Carlson was never heard from again.) Stewart’s abdication of The Daily Show before Trump preserved his legacy in that we never got to see how unfunny he’d be at grappling with the shitshow that is Trump’s administration. But because creative people simply can’t retire anymore, Jon Stewart flagrantly shows his ass with Irresistible, which contains ample evidence of every criticism made about The Daily Show and then some. I watch a lot of shitty movies and this one incensed me in ways I never knew myself capable of.
Steve Carell plays Gary Zimmer, an amalgamation of all the unflattering elements about Democratic DC insiders, and he’s smarting from bold proclamations about Hillary’s inevitable victory. (In a stylistic swipe so blatant Michael Moore should sue, Stewart represents the 2016 election with that footage of the cannonball hitting the guy in the stomach.) He seeks redemption in the form of trojan horsing Chris Cooper’s Col. Jack Hastings into the position of mayor of Deerlaken, Wisconsin, thereby reinvigorating the Party’s fortunes in the Rust Belt. He’s convinced to do this after witnessing a viral video of Hastings giving an impassioned common sense speech defending the rights of undocumented workers and for the indigent not to be burdened by arduous voter ID laws. (This is never brought up again in the film.) Zimmer sets his sights on Deerlaken and sets up shop, never able to get somebody’s WiFi password because WiFi is too advanced for the yokels.
Portraits in Eating Shit
The plot goes how you’d expect it to: Democrats and Republicans both comically inflate the mayoral race’s relevance and the media starts treating it as a bellwether for all sorts of national trends. The GOP is represented by Rose Byrne’s Faith Brewster, the stereotypical sexpot Republican who will lick a face as a goodbye. Zimmer supplements himself with Nate Silver data people played by Topher Grace and Natasha Lyonne, leading to lots of jokes about how they view humanity through a highly impersonal lens that contrasts with the down to earth, hard scrabble folk of the Heartland. There’s coffee jokes; it’s pretty dire. The escalation never results in anything funny either, and the fake campaign ads aren’t anywhere near as insane as real campaign ads. Carly Fiorina’s demon sheep ad remains above and beyond whatever Stewart can muster.
For long stretches the film goes episodic, like Hastings and Zimmer heading to New York to woo donors and Hastings giving a short, curt and confused “speech” that convinces Zimmer he’s on the right track about the perfidy of money in politics. He told it like it is! There’s a baffling scene of a Sheldon Adelson-type robotic geriatric whose only question in exchange for support concerns Hastings’ stance on settlements. Yet it still might be the best joke in the movie, because at least it’s something specific rooted in political reality (the Israel lobby) that represents a comedic risk. It beats Rose Byrne telling Steve Carell he has a vagina. But the general thrust resembles a number of other bad campaign movies, from The Campaign to Welcome to Mooseport to Swing Vote: escalation. The Republicans play dirty! The Democrats stoop to their level! Politics sure is ridiculous, isn’t it? I’m reminded of David X. Cohen noting on a Simpsons commentary track that most political satire boiling down to “both parties are corrupt and voting doesn’t matter” and this doesn’t stray from that.
This is meant to be a goof on the infamous “Jeb!” campaign, but it seems to think the humor in that came from the unorthodox punctuation and not the vast gap of enthusiasm between the slogan and the campaign.
Lest this article go on forever, let’s cut to the twist, and there is a twist. The election is an inside job, which the operatives realize when no one casts a vote. See, the town needed money after the military base closed and they settled upon tricking the Democrats and Republicans into sinking money into a fictional mayoral race. The video was staged. Zimmer feels betrayed, but as the townsfolk point out, the parties don’t care about small town hardscrabble salt of the earth farting off the overalls people except for when a presidential election rolls around. Take THAT, Democrats! Hastings’ attractive daughter (who previous to this exists mostly to receive leers from Steve Carell) eventually becomes the mayor FOR REAL while Zimmer and Faith Brewster are in a hate-filled sexual relationship. Get it, the Democrats and Republicans are literally in bed with each other. Does that blow your mind, man? Maybe Irresistible presumes Stewart’s audience never aged past his schtick, because these satirical points would only educate a 15 year old. Roll credits and some horseshit interview with the former chair of the FEC. Sorry, if names are on the screen I’m not paying attention anymore. You can’t make me do more homework, dad.
Steve Carell looks the way the audience feels!
It’d be pernicious enough if Irresistible was just a bad comedy, but it is much more than simply a failure to elicit laughs. It is an attempt by a beloved comedy elder statesman to make a biting, acidic satire powered by an ideology that is utterly defanged and drained of all potency. In Irresistible, Jon Stewart is trying to move the conversation by pushing a rope. Even with its Big Twist Ending, the film misunderstands its own terrain so badly and arrives at so laughable a diagnosis for What Went Wrong With Politics that this ostensibly devious upending just reinforces that Stewart is the butt of his own joke without seeming to realize it.
There are any number of things that hit a sour note for me throughout the film, but there is one major one that illustrates how limited Stewart’s political horizons are, and the twist ending does nothing to change it. Very early in the film, it is introduced that Deerlaken is in so dire a financial condition that it is at risk of losing its high school, presumably to have it be absorbed into central school at the county seat two towns over or whatever. The reason given is “the base closed.” We never learn much beyond that, but Deerlaken’s strip club and Dodge Charger dealership based economy was decimated. Deerlaken as a whole is thinly sketched, certainly in effort to be an “everytown”, but the result is that there’s no telling whether it’s a town of under 1000 people or something larger. I lean towards the former because Jon didn’t hire a lot of extras and as director has no sense of scale.
Conservatism has evolved so far past “_____ hates the troops” that this seems almost quaint.
In trying to reconstruct Stewart’s thought process, I imagine he sought to demonstrate how government budget cuts are harmful but needed something that the Real Americans in his story would be upset about were it to be cut. So he landed on that beleaguered program which is always fighting for its life to make sure its budget increases by $700 million every year: the military! Which is not to say a town next to an army base wouldn’t feel the pinch if that base were closed or relocated, but this is a fable, the reality is totally Stewart’s to shape. He could have gone with the very REAL problem of decades of disinvestment on the part of the owning class in manufacturing in the Rust Belt in favor of exploiting an even more desperate labor pool. Instead, Deerlaken’s plight results from a lack of Military Keynesianism, where we could not possibly disinvest from the global imperial war machine to deploy our collective resources elsewhere like, say, Medicare for All or transitioning to a sustainable energy model because jobs jobs jobs. Anyway, defund the military.
As mentioned before, in the inciting speech The Colonel gives, he mentions undocumented people living in Deerlaken who stand to be disenfranchised if the town passes a voter ID law. At no point do these people come up again, not even as a potential voter base for the supposedly victory-driven Zimmer to exploit through, say, a registration drive. After the Big Twist when it’s revealed that The Colonel’s speech was all contrived to attract the attention of DNC snakes like Zimmer, I was even more baffled by this choice and how I was supposed to interpret it. Either there never were people who helped save the town during a flood but who would have difficulty providing documentation, or there are such people in the vaguely sized town of Deerlaken whose continued disenfranchisement is beneath notice to every single character. I guess this can be explained away itself by the notion that the whole town was in on it to throw the election anyway, but as someone who lives in a state where the suppression of votes from impoverished people and black people is a profoundly real issue, I couldn’t gin up a lot of delight in the pluck of those slick small towners in picking the perfect issue to sucker in the Fat Cats. At best it comes off as ponderous. Ponderous is a good way to describe Irresistible, because nearly every choice, every development compels one to think “what if Stewart trying to do? What does he mean by this?”. It’s as though he created the perfect film for a freshman year critical analysis pop quiz.
When being ironically reductive becomes being reductive
Speaking of suckering the Fat Cats, let’s get to the whole raison d’etre of this grim exercise: the twist ending where it is revealed that the whole thing was a put on to bilk the Democratic party donor class into dumping dark money into a SuperPAC run by the townsfolk themselves. This entire feature length dirge of latte-sipping-Volvo-driver jokes and radical tone shifts to introduce a light ribbing of the Keep Palestine Occupied lobby was all in the service of highlighting that most dire of political issues: campaign finance reform. Lest you think that this was simply one element of a wider critique, Stewart helpfully appends the movie with a credits sequence interview with Republican campaign lawyer Trevor Potter, who explains how the Deerlakener’s (Deerlacunian’s? Deerlakerling’s?) scam would be possible under the law.
Here is where the joke is on Stewart. The entire thesis of Irresistible is that liberal politicians are unable to break through with “Red State” voters because they are so tied up in the world of special interests and donor priorities that they have lost the ability to see what ordinary people’s problems are and speak to them. This I would agree with him on, although I believe he sees it as Clouseausque bumbling, unintended ignorance, whereas I believe there is clear eyed intent. Where we seriously part ways is Stewart’s prescription of campaign finance reform to somehow redress this.
It’s pretty much spelled out by Stewart’s interview with Potter that he believes the primary impediment to making the Democratic Party relevant to a wider swath of voters in depressed parts of the country is to simply overturn Citizens United and make a few other tweaks to the campaign finance system and voila, now politicians won’t be beholden to corporate front groups and the ultrawealthy! Or at least, a level playing field (that great golden idol that liberals worship) would result in a Democratic party that is at least more responsive to the priorities of non-donor-class Americans.
If there’s anyone invested in a mayoral election, it’s the rural Wisconsin chapter of ANTIFA. Also, I like how because of COVID-19 the joke changes from “hey look it’s ANTIFA” to “hey look it’s citizens doing the bare minimum of due diligence to stem spread of the virus”.
I have nothing against campaign finance reform in itself, but this idea that it’s the skeleton key to Repair Our Democracy makes me want to tear my hair out. It’s the same rules-based theory of power that more or less well-meaning liberals spend all their energy on only to see it amount to a hill of beans when no one with the power to enforce the rule cares (see the Mueller investigation or the impeachment trial). What makes it so frustrating is that there is the glimmer of recognition of class conflict in this idea, that there are well-heeled people thwarting the will of poor people. But how does campaign financing transparency help the fact that our legislators are all personally invested in oil and gas companies? How does stopping dark money stop the fact that high ranking advisors in the Obama administration were literally on the corporate board for crowdfunding websites that make up to a third of their revenue from people begging for their lives to pay for medicine? How does campaign finance reform grapple with the fact that the very political actors themselves ARE the wealthy?
Jon Stewart is so out to sea as a director that he casts Will Sasso and gives him NOTHING TO DO.
In this attempt to skewer the hapless Democratic party for being totally out of touch with the political priorities of working people, Stewart has demonstrated just how out of step he himself is with the political priorities of working people. By combining a dated understanding of political fault lines, a parodic vision of the political lanyard class that reads more indulgently affectionate that oppositional, and a prescribed cure that amounts to so much rearranging of the deck chairs on the Titanic that is bourgeois representative democracy, Stewart has shown he’s as much of a joke as anyone in Irresistible.
Is Debra Messing playing herself?
A misaimed political message wouldn’t leave the film DOA if anything else in it worked. Carell bemoans the Democrats’ inability to talk to guys like Chris Cooper, as though that’s why the Democrats have lost voters to Republicans or apathy. Economics isn’t so much as mentioned. In the world of Irresistible, the Democrats’ problem is they’re elitist dweebs, which is true on the surface but facile and misleading. Yes, Dems are elitists. Yes, they are dweebs. But that doesn’t begin to explain the Party’s rightward shift that prioritized being business-friendly over its historical alliance with labor. Nor do the Republicans at all resemble what they are now: a White Nationalist party with nary a figleaf of legitimacy to hide behind. The film’s critique of the GOP is they’re mean and underhanded, which duh. But like Democrats’ selling out the labor class, nobody mentions that the Republicans trade on white grievance to win elections. This is why everything feels so dated: Rose Byrne feels welcome in the 2006 Republican Party, whereas today she’d be a Democrat. Byrne’s replacement would believe in QAnon and call opponents cuck pedophiles.
I hate it when an earnest 13 year old sneaks into the editing booth!
Really, it comes down to the film being, like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five, unstuck in time. Everything, from Jon’s underlying message to the premise itself, makes sense if he wrote it 15 years ago, exhumed it today, changed nothing and shot it as is. Basically every contemporary political issue of importance is absent, from Black Lives Matter to Medicare For All. I don’t think I’ve heard anyone say the phrase “Campaign Finance Reform” since President Baby took office. Once someone like that is president, it’s like investing in insurance after the bull left the china shop. There’s no point! It’s all fucked! To be charitable, maybe Stewart tried to avoid the post-Trump landscape in order to create a more timeless satire. If so, it backfired, because he inadvertently tied it to The Daily Show’s heyday. Sorry, but we can’t go back there.
Don’t tell me what to do, movie! I swear to god I’ll vote Jill Stein again!
I know from the last couple thousand words of this review you’ll get the sense that under no circumstances you ought to watch Irresistible, but I actually do recommend it in the sense that seeing is believing. Jon Stewart was one of the most beloved comedic voices of an era, scattered criticism be damned. So to see him return from exile with a masterpiece of lazy both sides centrism and lame city slicker culture shock jokes may not be necessarily unexpected, but it’s certainly an event. Like when someone slips and falls down some subway stairs. That’s what you ought to think of this as: a 104 minute fail video. Do the kids still say fail? Jesus, I’m out of touch. Maybe I am the intended audience for Irresistible…