The Jewish comedian’s new movie is warmed-over political satire.
Where have you gone, Jon Stewart? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you. (Woo woo woo.)
The former Daily Show host, and longtime torch-bearer for a certain brand of caustic Jewish political humor, has been largely absent from public eye since he took his bow from the show in 2015. His timing was auspicious: Stewart’s final episode was also the same night that Donald Trump made his debut on the debate stage in the Republican primaries, in the process further eroding the line between politics and comedy, news and “fake news.”
Now Stewart is back with something that isn’t news at all. But it wants to be. Irresistible, a new movie he wrote and directed (his second film after the 2014 Iran-set drama Rosewater), is a political satire set in the post-Trump era. It follows what happens when national political strategists descend on a mayoral election in small-town Wisconsin, trying to pervert it to their own agendas. Call it Washington Goes To Mr. Smith.
Stewart casts his old Daily Show correspondent Steve Carell as Gary, an NPR-loving Democratic strategist bemoaning his party’s inability to connect with white Midwestern voters in the wake of Trump’s near-sweep of the Rust Belt in 2016. When Gary sees a viral video of a melancholy army colonel (Chris Cooper) taking on his rural Wisconsin town’s new immigrant registration policy at a town hall, he’s instantly smitten. This gun-toting, plainspoken veteran, he believes, is the Democrats’ ticket back to the White House.
Gary’s demographic experiment becomes all-out war when his bleached-blonde Republican rival (Rose Byrne) catches wind of the race and throws her party’s campaign muscle behind the incumbent mayor, transforming the town overnight into a grotesque carnival of outside money. And the national media causes further trouble once they pick up on the scoop; many cable-news talking heads play themselves as they sputter through various sound-bite inanities.
Influence in politics has long been one of Stewart’s biggest hobbyhorses, and he relishes the chance to lay into the gulf between these yammering Washington elites and the close-knit, largely white, supposedly apolitical group of voters they’re courting. The film’s best bits send up the emptiness of this machine. When Gary berates his staff by yelling “I need some Hispanics!” over and over, he turns on a dime with the classic political apology: “I am profoundly disappointed in the comments that I just made.”
Irresistible has another disappointment in it, though. Much of the movie seems like it’s rooted in the version of politics Stewart made fun of for two decades on The Daily Show, instead of what it’s become in the five years since. The ugliest aspects of post-2016 campaigning — the active voter suppression, the bigoted dog-whistles, the willful ignorance of basic facts – go largely unremarked-upon here. In their place is material about super PACs and both-sides emptiness that feels so… last election cycle.
We can’t really blame Stewart, though. Reality outpaced satire long ago, and it’s hard to mock the political establishment without becoming a part of it. For a comic like him, who’s usually so good about keeping his finger on the pulse, this opportunity must have been pretty irresistible.
“Irresistible” is available to rent from most VOD platforms.