Jon Stewart’s Electoral System Satire 'Irresistible' Confuses Activism And Artistry [Review]

“Irresistible” ends in laughter, a series of chuckles laced with a twinge of despair. That a satire of our current political landscape might conclude in such resigned hysterics is hardly surprising. That’s to be anticipated from a film that combines the comedic talents of Steve Carell and Rose Byrne as seasoned Democratic and Republican operatives, respectively, who frantically barnstorm a tiny right-wing Wisconsin town to nationalize a mayoral race where plainspoken retired Marine colonel Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper) challenges an incumbent. The source of that snickering, however, is a bit unexpected – for they come from writer/director Jon Stewart, who inserts his presence into the fictional narrative just before the film’s close.

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As a coda to the main story of “Irresistible,” the outrageous yet totally plausible story of how big money and political strategists flood a small-town municipal election to manufacture a national contest, Stewart trades the directors’ chair for an approximation of his former “The Daily Show” bully pulpit to interview a former Federal Election Commission (FEC) commissioner. The talking head confirms that the most grotesque, obscene violations of ethical campaigning committed in the film are all technically permissible thanks to the lax regulations currently in place. This external validation adds a layer of gravitas to Stewart’s story. It also confirms that “Irresistible” could have just been a John Oliver segment on “Last Week Tonight.”

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Oliver has begun to eclipse Stewart, his former boss, in his inventiveness at conveying the absurdity of institutional rot and milking corruption for comedic stunts. “Irresistible” confirms that student has surpassed the teacher on one key maneuver. Stewart remains incisive, intelligent and insightful nearly five years after departing his “Daily Show” perch. His film diagnoses numerous cancers on the American body politic with clarity and precision. Stewart has not misread the moment, but responding to dumpster fire of electoral politics in the Trump era with a narrative feature indicates his sharp instincts may have dulled with infrequent use.

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Not unlike Angelina Jolie confusing her humanitarian work with directing in films like “First They Killed My Father” and “In the Land of Blood and Honey, Stewart crosses the wires between activist messaging and artistic expression in “Irresistible” to muddled effect. The very budget of a film is a testament to the project’s hubris. Stewart knows how to use his platform to agitate for passing policy as shown by his dogged advocacy for 9/11 first responders. So it stands to reason someone as smart and connected as Stewart could easily figure out a way to communicate the film’s political thesis more cost-effectively … and then funnel the millions of dollars that the production spent in the making of “Irresistible” towards pushing for systemic change within the institutions it excoriates.

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But then again, the modus operandi of “Irresistible” is not activism and organization. It’s self-help for the #Resistance members who spend all day mainlining New York Times headlines from their Twitter feed while taking little civic action to change conditions in Washington. Stewart may decry hacks like Carell’s Gary Zimmer who, from the comfort a private jet, do a cursory Wikipedia search of the state he hopes to impose his political will upon. Yet he can never escape from Gary’s perspective. “Irresistible” centers Gary and his archnemesis (and occasional romantic fling), Byrne’s aptly named Faith Brewster, at the expense of the people they see as tallies in a vote column rather than people with dignity and agency. The film it feels as if Stewart wanted to make might have placed a higher priority on the perspectives of the Wisconsinites and decentered the position of the pernicious politicos. His occasional jab at their privilege does not exculpate his indulgence of crafting a film almost entirely from their vocabulary and playbooks.

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There’s some purpose to Stewart’s myopic mechanics, though, and late-breaking revelations in “Irresistible” recast what might initially appear like a misstep as a cleverly calibrated misdirection. He also manages to avoid the smugness and self-satisfaction that marks so many films about urban outsiders carpetbagging in the American heartland. Yet he still cannot help but flattering the sensibilities of an elite political class while simultaneously flattening the people of rural Wisconsin into cardboard mouthpieces of knockoff “Capra corn.” The considerable talents of Mackenzie Davis go to waste in service of making her character, the colonel’s daughter Diana, into a one-woman Western Union delivering Stewart’s messages and morals rather than getting to just be a person. “Irresistible” devotes an entire scene to triangulating the praxis of Michelle Obama’s “when they go low, we go high” maxim but cannot find time to flesh out Diana’s character.

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The wild escalations made by both Gary and Faith during the campaign drive the film forward and clarify the critique of a class of opportunistic spinsters who see elections as gamified partisan combat with no real-world policy effects on people. Yet Stewart pitches “Irresistible” to participants and spectators in the broader culture of political hobbyism, thus reifying the very culture he abhors. He’s far more comfortable making jokes at the expense of bloated CNN pundit panels, winking at the DNC’s white feminism and poking fun at Upper West Side limousine liberals quoting Tom Friedman articles at cocktail parties than he is going anywhere below surface level in Wisconsin. It’s easier to make pandering jokes about how liberals can’t break through to working-class white voters than actually put in the work to understand their full humanity. Without such effort, Stewart does not just repeat the mistakes of his characters. He magnifies them. [C]