The most famous TV moment of Jon Stewart’s 16-year tenure as the host of “The Daily Show” actually happened on a different program altogether, as the sober-minded satirist dropped by CNN’s “Crossfire” in 2004 and nuked the long-running political debate program from the inside out like an oil rigger detonating a truth bomb from deep within the heart of a giant asteroid before it wipes out all intelligent life on Earth. Referring to hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala as “partisan hacks” and pleading with them to “stop hurting America,” Stewart accused “Crossfire” and the rest of its ilk of being glorified noise pollution — of turning public discourse into political theater and making it harder for people across the country to hear each other clearly.
It was a pyrrhic victory. While the segment proved so devastating that “Crossfire” was soon ethered out of existence (for a time, anyway), shows like it have only grown more prevalent in the years since. Ironically, Stewart’s righteous appearance helped the media stoke political conflict and antagonize people against each other, and “destroying” Carlson and Begala only managed to inflame a genre of clickbait that’s left us chasing the same high ever since.
Watching “Irresistible,” it’s obvious that Stewart is still all kinds of mad about that; the Trump era hasn’t exactly quelled his frustrations with the industrial-political complex. He’s more furious than ever that America’s citizens are being held hostage by a corrupt system that doesn’t care about the public interest, and so — for the first time since he failed to make a splash with his debut movie “Rosewater” back in 2014 — Stewart has returned to the broadest and most unwieldy of mainstream artforms in the hopes of getting everyone to see the big picture.
But anyone eager to hear Stewart make sense of the current moment is liable to be let down: Despite charming with the same kind of soft fury that turned “The Daily Show” into a cultural institution, his milquetoast new feature is so far removed from the world as we know it that it might as well have been shot through the wrong end of a telescope. If not for Stewart’s passionate advocacy work on behalf of 9/11 first responders and natural genius for sniffing out bullshit as it happens, “Irresistible” would make it seem as though he’s been living under a rock since he went off the air.
A Capra-esque moral comedy that unfolds with all the subtlety of sky writing and none of the same panache, “Irresistible” is a perverse bid for clarity that feels like it was left behind like a relic from some long-distant past. Not the 1939 of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” but perhaps from that narrow sliver of time between Stewart leaving “The Daily Show” in 2015 and the presidential election that was inflicted upon us the following year; that last pocket of history when the media was still as much of a threat as the monsters it empowered, and the American people weren’t quite as complicit in the animosity that keeps them at each other’s’ throats.
The story is the stuff of Chris Cillizza’s wet dreams. It starts sometime after Trump’s inauguration, when savage Democratic National Committee strategist Gary Zimmer (a very Carrellian Steve Carrell) sees a viral video of a town hall meeting in which Deerlaken, Wisconsin resident and retired Marine colonel Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper, playing into his usual type but with a satisfying twist) gives a rousing speech about defending the rights of undocumented workers. Jack isn’t a political creature, but Gary can only see a salt-of-the-earth type who would be the Platonic ideal of a mask-free MAGA fanatic if not for the fact that he still has a soul; he can only see the prototype for winning heartland voters back to the Democratic Party (the “Rural America. Heartland, USA” title card Stewart uses when the movie cuts to Wisconsin is a telling indication of the JibJab-level jokes to come).
So Gary hops on the DNC’s private jet, flies to Deerlaken, and convinces Hastings to run for mayor in the hopes of baiting the 24-hour news networks into covering the local election and weakening the GOP’s base. And that’s exactly what happens, as the Republican National Committee sends in Gary’s long-time rival and part-time fuck buddy to stop him. Invariably sharp even as the rest of the movie curdles around her, Rose Byrne plays Faith Brewster as a mix between Kellyanne Conway and her merciless “Spy” character Rayna Boyanova, delivering a performance as pointed as the “Jeb!” campaign’s famous exclamation mark (Faith’s idea).
It’s hard not to wonder how cutting this movie could’ve been had Stewart written it around Faith instead of Gary and let the plot spin away from its stifling puritanical orbit, but “Irresistible” makes all kinds of concessions in order to feel non-partisan. The film is a victim of the same artificially hyper-polarized environment that it’s fighting to expose, as Stewart’s argument — that Americans of all stripes have been turned against each other for the benefit of a political system that doesn’t care about them, and a media industry that incentivizes their anger — can’t afford to show any favoritism whatsoever.
That’s fine when Stewart wants to laugh at how Gary and Faith represent two faces of the same shit-covered coin in a “there are craven, power-hungry people on both sides” kind of way (Gary reading the Wikipedia page for Wisconsin as the Beltway elite flies into Deerlaken is a solid visual gag). And it also allows him to save his most poisonous barbs for the people who should know better, as the film’s best scenes illustrate how the entire political establishment is complicit in the gamification of American lives.
One memorable sequence hinges on Gary’s smarminess, as he summons Jack to an East Coast fundraiser where he has to convince rich liberals that his cause is worth supporting because it’s in their interests. The movie’s funniest running joke mocks the Joseph Heller-like absurdity of SuperPACs, a helpful tool in Stewart’s fantasy about regular folks liberating themselves from the jaws of a corrupt system.
The problem is that those regular folks are the only part of the movie that’s truly fantastical. Depicting the fictional town of Deerlaken as a kind of modern purple state Mayberry where everyone knows your name and the pastries are delicious, Stewart tries to subvert flyover stereotypes and media-fueled preconceptions at Gary’s expense. The locals are a lot more sophisticated than the DNC spin doctor gives them credit for, even after he spends time with Jack, crushes on his 28-year-old daughter (a winsomely iron-willed Mackenzie Davis), and is embraced by a motley crew of locals who try not to embarrass the out-of-towner, Gary still commissions a condescending political ad in which Jack goes bass fishing with a machine gun.
Despite meeting half of the Deerlaken population, Gary still brings in a crack team of political scientists to mulch all of his new friends into raw data. These lukewarm scenes typify the film’s tendency to settle for “cute” instead of “funny” — they hardly even pop to life when Natasha Lyonne drops by in a mustard blazer that makes her look like the coolest burnout in the history of Hogwarts, and gives “Irresistible” its only lasting sense of visual identity. The broadness of the movie’s comedy (like, say, Bill Erwin’s cameo as a cyborg Republican donor) clashes against a story that’s politely furious at the lack of nuance in our political discourse, but refuses to go into details.
Stewart wants us to get over our tribalism, empathize across the aisle, and band together to untangle ourselves from the discourse that’s driving us all mad, but it’s a lot easier to see eye-to-eye with people when you don’t have to hear their politics. Or if they don’t have any to begin with. The media may have invented or inflamed some of the issues that are dividing this country, but the media didn’t put kids in cages. The media didn’t try to ban Muslims from coming to America, or strip basic protections from LGBTQ+ citizens, or reanimate the White Power movement.
And while the citizens of Deerlaken sure seem nice — and while it’s tempting to cheer on their small-government dream of doing what’s right for their community — Stewart excuses them from the most pressing issues of our world in a way that makes it seem like they already don’t have to live in it. As a result, they end up being flattened into the very kind of faceless voters that Gary assumes they are from the start. Not fable-esque enough to be this divorced from the reality of our political systems, but too pointed against the reality of our political systems to feel like this much of a fable, “Irresistible” only winds up feeling like it’s resisting itself.
Focus Features will release “Irresistible” on VOD on Friday, June 26.