How can satire be heard in a society as divided along ideological, cultural and even racial lines as ours?, asked Ben Greeman in his essay “Is Satire Possible in the Age of Trump?” published in The New York Times in March of last year. “By becoming louder and crasser,” he answered. “Subtle jabs are increasingly replaced by sledgehammer blows…” To which I add the following observation from Jonathan Coe’s essay “Will Satire Save Us in the Age of Trump?” published by The Guardian in January 2017: “the present moment calls for absurdism, caricature and tomfoolery, because these are the only ways to capture our current reality.” But what happens when our political reality is itself absurd, a caricature, when our current political leaders and officials as well as commentators and bloviators keep telling each other “hold my beer” in an attempt to outdo each other in outrageous behavior, policy decisions and even opinions? How can a political satirist like Jon Stewart, five years after leaving The Late Show, be heard amidst all the noise when everyone with a Twitter or Facebook account flings quips and memes left and right that may potentially go viral? Well, in Stewart’s case, by disappointingly staying in his comfort zone.
In Irresistible, his second feature after the 2014 Iran-set political drama Rosewater, Stewart opts for the sledgehammer approach; his characters come close to being caricatures (one even detects a slight whiff of condescension towards them) and there is tomfoolery and absurdism galore. The target of his satire is his old archenemy: the corrupting influence of money on our body politic and the industry built around it. Stewart, in the film’s production notes and in several interviews, has stated that two events served as inspiration for his film: a special election in Georgia in 2017 to fill a vacant congressional seat that became the most expensive campaign in recent congressional history; and his introduction of a friend running for Congress in West Virginia to a gathering of liberal movers and shakers at a fundraiser held in Manhattan’s West Village (re-enacted in one of Irresistible’s best, most on-target scenes).
Stewart likes to think of himself as an equal rights satirist and even though the Republicans get their fair share of jabs, it’s the liberal mindset, more specifically, the elitist East Coast branch of that mindset, that is pounded to a bloody pulp here. And no one is more representative of that mindset than Gary Zimmer (Steve Carell, in full smarmy, egregious and unbearable mode), a veteran Democrat political strategist still reeling from Trump’s surprising win in the 2016 presidential elections. He’s looking for a way back in the game and finds it when one of his employees shows him a YouTube video of Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper), a former Marine and farmer from Deerlaken, Wisconsin berating the town’s major for passing an anti-immigrant bill. Could it be? A conservative with a liberal heart in a swing state? Could this be their answer to winning back that rural demographic they lost to the orange-hued one?
And off Gary goes, on his private jet, to Deerlaken, a town that saw better days when the military base that served as its sole economic engine was in full throttle. As depicted by Stewart, Deerlaken is also your stereotypical, mostly white, very friendly Capraesque small town where everybody greets you by your first name, the pastries are delicious, old ladies glare at you whenever you yell an expletive and where most of its residents are happy with dial-up to connect with the outside world (only the local school has access to wi-fi). Jack agrees to run against the town’s popular Republican mayor as long as Gary is in charge of the campaign. Gary gets to work relying on a small group of local volunteers clueless as to the ways of D.C. His efforts soon draw national attention, not only from the media but from his rival and occasional lover Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne, playing Mary Matalin to Carell’s James Carville), a Republican strategist who can play as dirty as any of her male predecessors. Gary brings his big guns from D.C. in response and the whole town is soon in full campaign mode. PACs are created, data is extrapolated, zip codes targeted, negative ads produced and fundraisers held in Manhattan. But then Stewart pulls a fast one on us with an ending that had me smiling at first and then asking, “Why the O. Henry ending? It belongs in a different movie.”
More often than not, Stewart overplays his hand. Titles in caps like “RURAL AMERICA” followed by “HEARTLAND AMERICA” come screaming at you; and then there all those briefly amusing acronyms describing the town’s demographics that are also superimposed, in caps, over the image. Even towards the end, Stewart can’t resist the temptation of having the film’s title pop up on screen and highlight the word “Resist” as they come flying at you. Dialogue is too on the nose; you can almost see Stewart grinning wildly at his own cleverness as he types these words on his laptop or desktop.
Stewart unwieldily fuses Frank Capra’s earnest view of small-town America with Armando Ianucci’s acidic view of politics in The Thick of It and Veep; and it occasionally works. For a while, you buy into Stewart’s view that this industry built around politics can poison everything that makes America great. But he pulls that cheap trick at the end (which he justifies with a post-credit interview with Trevor Potter, former chair of the Federal Election Commission), you feel cheated; nothing prepared you for it.
This being an election year, the release of Irresistible —the most generic title you could imagine for a political satire— feels appropriate, an attempt to tap into a zeitgeist, whatever that zeitgeist may be. A film that in its broad humor and cheap shots makes for perfect undemanding viewing for these pandemic, stay-at-home times. Given that it takes place after the last presidential election, one might even forgive Stewart for not digging deeper. Trump’s victory did come as a surprise to all in spite of the money spent and we now know why: that the divisions wrecking our country go far beyond the campaign cycle, that our electoral process is subject to foreign intervention and that small-town America is far more than friendly neighbors, fresh pastries and disapproving old ladies (although the boarded-up stores do point to a truth that most still refuse to acknowledge). A satirist’s real challenge these days is to keep up to speed on a rapidly changing and shifting world. And Irresistible is way behind the curve.
Irresistible will be available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Vudu, Google Play, Fandango Now and on Movie-on-Demand platforms beginning June 26.