A film review by Craig J. Koban July 3, 2020

IRRESISTIBLE jjj

2020, R, 101 mins.

Steve Carell as Gary Zimmer  /  Rose Byrne as Faith Brewster  /  Chris Cooper as Jack Hastings  /  Mackenzie Davis as Diana Hastings  /  Topher Grace as Kurt  /  Natasha Lyonne as Tina  /  Will Sasso as Big Mike

Written and directed by Jon Stewart

Jon Stewart spent the better part of two decades as host of THE DAILY SHOW, a politically driven comedic news program that arguably did just as good of a job - if not better - of covering headlines than the more "serious" mainstream news outlets.  Surprisingly, he never achieved super stardom in front of the camera on the silver screen, as over the last few years he has opted to work out his creative fantasies as a writer/director.  

His latest is the new political satire IRRESISTIBLE, which concerns a high powered Democratic strategist that attempts to help a small town Americana candidate win a mayoral election.  It's an interesting hybrid, for sure, that mixes Capra-esque elements, fish out of water farce, and a sobering commentary about the unhealthy intersection of money and politics.  Sometimes, the attempted satire here is either too forced and obvious, whereas other times it seems somewhat toothless and lacking in bite.  Despite it not having as much raw nerve as I would have liked, IRRESISTIBLE remains equal parts hysterical and thematically sobering. 

Stewart expertly crafts a great opening hook: The film opens on that fateful day of Election Night, 2016, during which time we all know which U.S. presidential candidate came out on top.  On the Hilary Clinton side is Democratic campaign manager Gary Zimmmer (a perfectly cast Steve Carell, Stewart's old THE DAILY SHOW colleague) and on Donald Trump's side is Republican manager Faith Brewster (an equally strong Rose Byrne), both who spend the night away eagerly watching for the returns.  This pair is set up as absolute ravenous sharks of the political world, having no qualms whatsoever who they have to chew up and spit out to ensure that their respective candidate comes out on top.  Then...the unthinkable happens: Trump wins.  Gary's team is predictably shocked, whereas Faith's team is elatedly shocked.  In the aftermath of Trump's win Stewart crafts a devilishly sly scene showing both campaign managers throwing absolute caution to the wind and telling the ravenous news reporters the truth of what's really on their minds: They're fraudsters and in the con game (they so much as tell the media that they're in the lying business), which builds into a slickly funny title sequence showcasing decades of presidential candidates going through multiple grass roots meet-and-greets with common folk in common places...all scored to Bob Seger's "Still the Same."  

A bit too one the nose?  For sure, but it works within the context of what's to come. 

 

 

The film then flashes forward several years to the present, and we meet back up with the once disgraced and humiliated Gary, who has decided to launch an audacious new political scheme.  After seeing a small town war vet in retired Colonel Jack Hastings (a crackerjack Chris Cooper) make an impassioned speech at his local Deerlaken, Wisconsin town council meeting (a video that went quickly viral), Gary seems political opportunity with him.  Yearning to make this Independent into a Democrat, Gary wants to convince the ex-military man to run in his town's mayoral race against the staunch Republican incumbent.  Obviously, this race is a far cry below the political relevance of what he has worked on before, but Gary nevertheless sees it as a golden opportunity for some symbolic career salvation.  Of course, he has challenges ahead, like the fact that Mayor Braun (Brent Sexton) isn't going to go down without a fight, as well as Jack being an unwilling participant at first.  Still, Gary manages to convince his candidate-to-be otherwise, and as he as his team try to whip Jack into political fighting shape they face new conflicts with the arrival of - yup! - Faith into town, who has decided to back and support the mayor's campaign.  Some things, as Bob Seger would say, are "still the same." 

Some of the more reliably amusing moments of IRRESISTIBLE occur at the expense of the big city strategists trying to acclimate to small town life.  Gary is a hopeless newb at this, especially during one quietly uproarious moment when he enters the town's most popular watering hole and tries to man up by order a burger and a Budweiser.  When he journeys up to his quaint motel suite (above the same bar) and asks for the room's Wi-Fi password, the front desk tells him "Good Luck."  He mistakes good luck for the password, not as in good luck getting any Wi-Fi out here (at one point, Gary and his campaign team have to work remotely just outside of the town high school, one of the few good sources of strong Internet connections, after they realize that the dial up modems at their HQ will not cut it).  Gary grows to detest certain aspects of the town (they never lock their doors, they are technologically out of touch, and the citizens seem obnoxiously chipper), but he does love the local pastry shop (he hilariously gorges on them like he's never had food before) and he seems a bit smitten with his candidate's twentysomething daughter (Mackenzie Davis), but she thankfully reminds both him and us that there's a somewhat creepy near thirty year age gap between them. 

IRRESISTIBLE really starts hitting comedic zingers when it traverses the sheer craziness of Gary's and Faith's mutual schemes and showing these hostile Washington power players continually locking horns in the heartland of America.  They relish not only in the manipulation of all of Deerlaken's blue collar folk, but there's a borderline sexual tension that exists between them when it comes to the joyous possibilities of leaving the other in the dust.  And Gary and Faith pull no punches whatsoever when it comes to even using potty mouthed insults on live TV, leaving the stuffed shirts at the anchor desks in a state of ineffectual - and funny - silence.  The limitless absurdity of this situation hits its peak with many of the film's campaign ads, my favorite of which showcases the Colonel blasting a massive machine gun into a nearby lake, followed by the candidate looking into the camera and saying, "My name is Jack Hastings and I endorse this message."  Gary never fails to see the potential in Jack, even when so many around him lack his enthusiasm. "He's like a church going Bernie Sanders with better bone density!" he proudly boasts at one point. 

Beneath the rampant silliness that permeates IRRESISTIBLE is a fairly solemn, cautionary message about the modern political system and all of the problems that taint it.  All Jack wants, initially at least, is some answers as to why Deerlaken closed both its military base and soon-to-be shut down high school.  He sees this as a depressing lack of small town progress.  There's ample purity in Jack's aspirations.  He genuinely wants to save his struggling home.  Gary and Faith, on the other hand, care little for their candidates' causes: They're playing mind games of one-upmanship to ensure total dominance and victory, even going to the trouble of pressuring ultra wealthy special interest groups to contribute unheard of money to this tiny, rural campaign.  Clearly, Stewart is honing his scorning crosshairs on the nature of the Super PAC system and how that negatively influences all facets of politics, large and small.  Getting lost in all of this are, for the most part, noble minded people that want to do good, but their journey towards empowering their town for the greater good is being twisted by a lot of political mudslinging and an unnecessary infusion of cash into the proceedings.  It's enough to make one sick. 

One of my problems, though, with IRRESISTIBLE is that, as mentioned, Stewart never really embraces a gloves-off and hard edged approach to the satire.  To be fair, he jabs away about both sides of the political fence here, but he does so in a mostly safe and pedestrian fashion.  There's something to be said as well about the fact that what Stewart is trying to say about the political system in America is not altogether fresh or revelatory (great films like PRIMARY COLORS told the same basic story that tackled the same targets twenty plus years ago, and did a better job at it too).  Some of the comedic bits here and there in Stewart's film come off as almost too distractingly zany and broad for their own good (a moment featuring a stroke afflicted billionaire backer coming into Gary's campaign offices sporting a mechanical suit that makes him walk like ROBOCOP seems like it doesn't belong in this film at all).  And then there's the polarizing nature of IRRESISTIBLE's plot twisty finale, which is perhaps too clever and artificially arrived at for its own good.  Stewart wants to turn viewers upside down on their heads when it comes to subversion of expectations, but I simply didn't feel that it worked as well as he thinks it does. 

Still, IRRESISTIBLE most definitely scores big laughs when it wants to, largely thanks to the presence of Carell and Byrne, both of whom fully commit to their corrupt minded campaign managers that miraculously make us like them despite how ethically bankrupted their motives and actions are (plus, there are wonderful supporting turns, like Davis navigating the tricky role of her candidate daughter who's much smarter than anyone else in the film gives her credit for, as well as from Topher Grace and Natasha Lyonne as a pair of lower level campaign workers that rounds off the performance ensemble quite well).  Cooper perhaps has the toughest acting challenge here, having to portray an affable man of decency and moral fiber that has his worldview and life stained by the outside injection of Gary's minions and end game.  I'm a tad torn about whether I can honestly recommend this at the hefty $20 VOD rental price (like so many films this year, IRRESISTIBLE was a release casualty of the pandemic), but I'm giving Stewart's satire a passing grade with reservations.  It may lack a bitter and edge and timely relevance (politics is a dishonest and perverted battleground...we get it), but it's still a highly amusing comedy about the dark underbelly of the American democratic spirit. 

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