Irresistible is intended to speak to our present and our future, but it can’t seem to escape the past.
Written and directed by Jon Stewart, the film opens in the days leading up to the 2016 election before skipping ahead to 2017 or so, and from start to finish it feels like an artifact of those times. It’s of a piece with those hand-wringing profiles of Trump voters in diners — which themselves were expressions of yearning for a better past, when it was possible for us to all just get along.
But those simpler times were never all that simple. The present isn’t either. By glossing over the complications inherent in our political landscape, Stewart misses an opportunity to deliver a message that matters, in a way that might actually connect. Irresistible ends up an outdated satire whose best intentions get buried under alternating layers of nostalgia and cynicism.
Irresistible‘s best intentions get buried under alternating layers of nostalgia and cynicism.
The film is set in the fictional small town of Deerlaken, Wisconsin, but the specifics of the town aren’t important, because there aren’t any. It’s a generic stand-in for a certain type of community situated within the mythical “real America” of stump speeches and Super Bowl commercials. The people of Deerlaken are pure of spirit and stout of heart, unsullied by anything as dirty as partisan politics. (Need it even be said that all these people are white? Racial diversity, as Irresistible portrays it, is an affectation of the liberal elite.) At least, that is, until those big-city, big-money folk come along.
And they do. First there’s Gary (Steve Carell), a Democratic strategist who’s still smarting from the bruising loss of 2016. He learns about Deerlaken when he stumbles across a viral video of a former Marine colonel named Jack (Chris Cooper) mounting an impassioned defense of immigrants at a local town hall meeting. Gary sees in Jack the opportunity to change his party’s wussy public image — Jack “makes Joe the Plumber look like Dukakis in mom jeans and an Easter bonnet,” he crows — and lands in town with the goal of getting Jack elected mayor so the Democrats can make inroads in the heartland.
If Gary’s in Deerlaken, so is Faith (Rose Byrne), his even more ruthless Republican counterpart. If Gary and Faith are both in Deerlaken, so are their teams of marketing wizards and polling gurus and data crunchers. Then follow the media, and the wealthy donors, and the protestors. The people of Deerlaken can only stand back, wide-eyed, as the circus runs roughshod over their own wishes and needs, which is the point Stewart is trying to make: Money is ruining politics at the expense of the citizens and communities that these bloated parties purport to serve.
It’s a valid concern, and one Stewart is clearly passionate about. The end credits of Irresistible are given over to an interview with Trevor Potter, former commissioner and chairman of the United States Federal Election Commission, so that Potter can put the film you’ve just seen in context by explaining how unbelievably screwed up our current system is. Then, in case you still aren’t getting it, Stewart, from off-camera, parrots Potter’s main points back to him.
But this lesson is undermined by its packaging. Irresistible has that awkward tone of biting satires that are neither all that funny nor all that sharp: You know you’re supposed to be laughing, but you’re not, and the silence is deafening. A favorite trick is to ditch the subtext and just state the text as a snarky reprimand to the viewer, which only suggests that the film trusts neither itself nor its audience to comprehend a message otherwise. Its nonpolitical jokes land no better. Irresistible‘s idea of a hilarious character quirk is Gary…liking food. That’s it. That’s the entire gag.
Its attempts at sincerity are even less convincing. The star-studded cast does what it can with these roles, and most of them make out fine. Byrne’s part is small but snappy, and Cooper and Mackenzie Davis (who plays his daughter) breathe some warmth into an otherwise chilly movie. But it gradually becomes apparent that there are no characters in Irresistible, only character types. Some of this is by design, as a bizarre last-minute twist reveals, but even then we’re left with the sense that Irresistible hasn’t really bothered to understand the people it’s skewering or valorizing.
Had Irresistible come out three or five or ten years ago, at the height of Stewart’s influence, perhaps it would have stood a fighting chance of passing muster as a political statement. All its blind spots would have remained, but its glib tone might have seemed more in vogue, its Adam McKay-style gimmickry a little bit fresher, its “both sides” posturing more broadly palatable.
At a time when much of the country has taken to the streets in protest amid a deadly pandemic, though, Irresistible feels hopelessly out of touch. If Irresistible wanted to address real real Americans, and not just the fine, fictional “real Americans” of Deerlaken, it should have started by acknowledging America as it really is — not retreating into a fantasy of an America that probably never was, and certainly isn’t now.
Irresistible is available to stream on Apple TV, Prime Video, and more.