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NPR Arts & Life

Jon Stewart's Disappointing New Political Satire Is Hardly 'Irresistible'

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Jon Stewart, former longtime host of "The Daily Show," has written and directed a new political comedy film called "Irresistible," which begins streaming today on video on demand platforms. It stars Steve Carell as a Democratic Party strategist who gets involved in a political race in a small Wisconsin town. Our film critic, Justin Chang, has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: Jon Stewart hasn't exactly been quiet in the years since his departure from "The Daily Show." He's been a forceful advocate for 9/11 first responders. And he's appeared occasionally on his friend Stephen Colbert's show to offer withering views on President Trump. But there's little of that focus and passion in his disappointing and misleadingly titled new movie, "Irresistible." It's a political satire that wants to say something timely and significant but feels exasperatingly out of step with the present moment.

The movie stars Steve Carell as Gary Zimmer, a longtime Democratic strategist who is reeling from Hillary Clinton's 2016 electoral defeat when the movie opens. A few months after Trump's inauguration, Gary is ready to jump back into the fray. He believes the party's future rests on the unlikely shoulders of Colonel Jack Hastings, a Marine veteran and dairy farmer from a small, economically blighted Wisconsin town called Deerlaken.

Jack, played by a very good Chris Cooper, has just given a passionate speech defending the town's undocumented workers in a video that has gone viral. He may not look or sound like a traditional Democrat, but that's why Gary thinks he's the perfect guy to rebrand the party's image and show that Republicans don't have a monopoly on family values, military heroism and love of country. You can see why Gary would gravitate toward a white, rural everyman in the immediate wake of 2016.

But a lot has changed since then. And right now, when the next generation of elected Democrats includes leaders like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, it feels like an awfully dated premise. In any event, Gary hops on a private jet to Deerlaken, where he persuades Jack to run for mayor as a Democrat against the Republican incumbent. Some fish-out-of-water comedy ensues.

Carell is good at playing self-important characters with minimal self-awareness. And Gary's jittery, East Coast energy is amusingly at odds with this mostly conservative town. But his plan starts to work. The Republican Party gets wind of what's happening and starts funding the mayor's reelection campaign. Camera crews, polling experts and super PACs descend on Deerlaken, so does a rival GOP strategist, Faith Brewster - clearly modeled on Kellyanne Conway and played by a typically on point Rose Byrne. Here, Gary and Faith get in a heated argument during a CNN-style interview.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IRRESISTIBLE")

ROSE BYRNE: (As Faith) The Democrat Party can't win. They're getting desperate. They don't know us. They don't want to know us. And they look down on our guys.

STEVE CARELL: (As Gary) No, no. That's we - you're D.C. elite.

BYRNE: (As Faith) Oh, no. Actually, I'm from here.

KATLYN CARLSON: (As Brooke) Faith, I didn't know that. You're from Wisconsin?

BYRNE: (As Faith) Yeah - well, no, Deerlaken. I'm from Deerlaken.

CARELL: (As Gary) What? Whoa.

CARLSON: (As Brooke) Oh, wow. So this campaign has been a bit of a homecoming.

BYRNE: (As Faith) It really is, Brooke. Thank you.

CARELL: (As Gary) No, no, no, no. That's a lie. That's a lie

BYRNE: (As Faith) No, it's true.

CARELL: (As Gary) You're lying. She's - that's - no, that...

BYRNE: (As Faith) I'm from here.

CARELL: (As Gary) What are you even doing?

CARLSON: (As Brooke, laughter) OK...

BYRNE: (As Faith) I'm from here.

CARELL: (As Gary) You're not from here.

CARLSON: (As Brooke) Well, as always, a great and spirited discussion...

BYRNE: (As Faith) Thank you so much.

CARLSON: (As Brooke) Thank you both. Unfortunately, we have to leave it there.

CARELL: (As Gary) No. Hey. No, no, no, no. She's lying. She's lying.

CHANG: Stewart is drawing partly on reality. The character of Jack was inspired by Jon Ossoff the upstart Georgia Democrat who nearly flipped a conservative House district in a special election in 2017 and is now running for the Senate. But the director is also channeling the whimsical spirit of classic Frank Capra films like "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington" with its corny but stirring celebration of small-town idealism. "Irresistible" wants to be a Capraesque fable. But it also wants to offer a cynical insider's view of everything that's wrong with American politics. The two modes don't really gel. And so the movie weirdly comes off as both naive and smug.

It's easy enough to grasp Stewart's main argument. He's using the absurdity of the Deerlaken situation to call out the corrupting influence of money in politics, the way funds get poured into campaigns rather than solutions. He's also ribbing the media for stoking divisions and pushing both sides toward greater extremes. We live in a broken system, Stewart is saying, where the right and the left are equally culpable. Whether or not you agree with that assumption, Stewart is trying to present both sides. In movie terms, that means treating the people of Deerlaken with kid gloves while subjecting Gary, the clueless liberal, to relentless critical scrutiny.

Mackenzie Davis gives a nice performance as Jack's daughter who consistently puts Gary in his place. It's too bad that "Irresistible" is nearly as out of touch as Gary is. The movie's dreamy, fable-like qualities leave it feeling utterly divorced from present day reality. Of course, it's not Stewart's fault that he shot this film well before this year's extraordinary mass protests against racism. Even still, the lack of any significant characters of color or of any mention of race beyond a few lame jokes about Black and Latino voters feels pretty glaring for a political movie released in 2020. I liked Stewart's 2014 drama "Rosewater." But cinematic satire seems to elude him. He could spin nightly headlines into sharp commentary. But he can't give this toothless movie the bite that it needs.

BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is a film critic for The LA Times. On Monday's show, Lin-Manuel Miranda returns to FRESH AIR. He created the musical "Hamilton" and starred as Alexander Hamilton in the original Broadway production. A filmed version of that production will start streaming on Disney+ July 3. Hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERROLL GARNER'S "YOU MADE ME LOVE YOU")

BIANCULLI: Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Charlie Kaier, Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERROLL GARNER'S "YOU MADE ME LOVE YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.