Irresistible takes place in Rural America, Heartland USA. Seriously, that’s the insert title placed over a small Wisconsin town where farmer Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper) becomes a viral sensation after criticizing his local government’s voter ID law. It’s also the kind of generic Americana imagery sold to us every two years by an endless barrage of political campaign ads, a fact writer-director Jon Stewart aims to deconstruct in this parable about red states and blue states, and Cooper’s country mouse meeting a particularly desperate city one—elite Democrat strategist Gary Zimmer (Steve Carell).
As Stewart’s second film after Rosewater, which was an ambitious biopic about a tortured journalist in Iran, Irresistible feels like it should be a return to familiar territory, one that’s in the same direction as his 16-year stint on The Daily Show. There he was acerbic but approachable, intellectually rigorous in his research yet self-deprecating enough to pass as the smartass down the bar. And it’s how he carved out a niche for himself on premium cable by becoming the best late night host of his generation.
With Irresistible, he revisits all these elements that made him every progressive’s favorite nightcap. There’s a general zaniness which masks incredulity, and a “be a mensch” positivity that then gives way to righteous fury at the D.C. beltway. Hell, there’s even a Steve Carell here. But despite the movie actually taking place on his home turf, that doesn’t mean this is his best comedy. Or even particularly good comedy.
As a story, the movie is about how Gary exploits Jack’s Capra-esque appeal, and becomes a vanguard for the D.C. political machine descending on the heartland like locusts. Carell’s Gary arrives wounded and near obsolescence after being one of Hillary Clinton’s biggest surrogates—the kind who thought she didn’t even need to campaign in Wisconsin. Now he hopes to prove Wisconsin is still a blue state by turning Cooper’s 21st century Mr. Deeds into a mayor… and possibly more.
The problem is Carell’s character doesn’t know how to convince Jack of that. For our protagonist is the type of guy who must look up Wisconsin on Wikipedia during the flight over, and who would rather listen to NPR’s Terry Gross discuss the finer points of Rodgers and Hammerstein. As he tells Jack, “Guys like me don’t know how to talk to guys like you.” But even as he is bringing in big money from New York City, his arch rival in the GOP, Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne), is coming to town like a platinum haired general, flanked by an armada of dark Super PAC money.
As a civics lesson about our modern electoral industrial complex, Irresistible is depressingly accurate. And one imagines that is the movie Stewart wants to make, with Carell as Virgil taking Cooper’s all-Americanness, and that of his not-so-wide-eyed adult daughter Diana (Mackenzie Davis), through Super PAC Hell.
However, as a comedy it suffers from the fundamental problem of not being that funny. With a few notable exceptions, the laughs in Irresistible are sporadic and the flatness of its “city slickers vs. country values” conflict errs on the side of glib. It’s certainly smug.
Perhaps its biggest problem is selling Carell’s awkwardness around these small town farmers. Despite Gary being introduced as a David Axelrod type who’s spent his life on the campaign trail, the intended guffaws about him not knowing how to open a Budweiser bottle or make small talk with a flirty baker play as tired and basic, often relying on Carell’s natural charisma and ability to channel sitcom-level buffoonery. In fact, there are several sections of the film that are clearly edited together riffs of Carell’s improvisations—and in a finished film it looks like a gag reel that’s been misplaced.
Yet where the movie does work is whenever Byrne’s Faith Brewster is onscreen. An unholy hybrid of Kellyanne Conway and Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, Byrne’s Machiavellian fear-mongerer steals every scene she’s in. And finally free from being surrounded by proverbial straight men, Carell has a scene partner who he can spar with. It also allows Stewart to indulge in more creative humor with his screenplay, such as an extremely R-rated montage of Gary and Faith saying what they’re really thinking on camera, cutting through the artifice of political theater.
Natasha Lyonne has a similar fourth wall breaking cameo as a scene stealing analytics expert whose understanding of her role in these power plays lands the movie closer to obvious Adam McKay post-The Big Short influences as opposed to the flatness of the rest of the movie.
But Stewart’s inability to meld these elements into a coherent or fully satisfying whole hints at his greenness as a director, which undercuts his high-minded indignation. For now, Irresistible fails to connect the emotion and humor of its gags—including a pretty clever ending—in a fully coherent way. The end result is a movie that will only appeal to the already converted Garys of the world. Then again I am a New Yorker who does listen to Terry Gross and loves the subtleties of Rodgers and Hammerstein, and even I struggled to crack a smile when Byrne was off-screen.