Directed by: Jon Stewart. Starring: Steve Carell, Rose Byrne, Chris Cooper. Runtime: 1h 41 min. Released: June 26, 2020.
Steve Carell plays Gary Zimmer, a fictional campaign strategist who lost a very winnable campaign in the 2016 election on the side of Hilary Clinton. For his redemption, Zimmer sees an inspiring video online of retired veteran Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper) fighting for undocumented immigrants at a town hall meeting in the small town of Deerlaken, Wisconsin, and Zimmer decides to help him run for Mayor.
On Gary’s first day in the town, he’s not used to everyone’s kindness. He’s there one night and the next morning, everyone knows his name. He doesn’t know how to react, for good reason (but Carell’s reaction is funny). It’s strange. While watching it, I thought their friendliness seems like it could be the set-up for a horror film in a different director’s hands. However, since it’s written and directed by Jon Stewart, it’s of course a comedy and political satire.
Frankly, there’s no satirical edge to this comedy – subtle for much of the film until Stewart makes it clear later in the film as to what he’s satirizing. Politics really go over my head, so to me the film played out like one of Stewart’s opening monologues on The Daily Show – only somewhat funny and I’m understanding the satire occasionally.
I’ve seen a couple of his good monologues when there was absolutely nothing else on TV, but his film lacks the sharpness of them. It’s just flat as it commentates on the media and how governments overspend on elections. The main points are interesting, as are thoughts on the election system in general, but the satire is all so subtle that it plays as a straightforward comedy for most of it.
I am a Steve Carell fan and he plays the role well here, but I just didn’t care about Gary as a person. However, the “relationship” he creates with Jack Hastings’ daughter Diana (Mackenzie Davis) brings about some refreshing moments when she makes him realize that he condescends to the townsfolk and gestures him to respect them more.
This is shown mostly in one running gag that at first appears trivial (and sort-of is) where when he first arrives to town he orders a burger and Budweiser at the town’s Hofbräuhaus and the owner sends a busboy across the street to get a burger and a six-pack of Budweiser from a neighboring restaurant because they don’t actually serve burgers and Budweiser. “They’ve been patronizing you,” she says. Other scenes it actually sticks that he’s being a dick – in one headline he uses the term ‘small minds’ – but since he’s a D.C. elite, and because who Gary is as a person, it really never does stick.
Davis only shines occasionally, mostly shifted to the background in a will they/won’t they sub-plot with Gary as she defends her father occasionally. The always good Chris Cooper is solid as Jack Hastings in an election that really isn’t about him. It ends up being an ego battle between Gary and his arch-nemesis Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne), a Republican strategist from the 2016 election who comes to Deerlaken when she catches wind of Gary’s involvement in the election.
The film gets marginally more interesting when she comes into play and that competition between them starts as she represents the current Mayor of Deerlaken, the Republican Mayor Braun (Brent Sexton). The two main star’s abrasive banter and butting-heads chemistry brings the film’s only laugh-out-loud moments.
Carell and Byrne are such a strong pairing that I wish they were in a better comedy. I also wish that the film were less about the politics and more about their rivalry and just them sparring with each other. The scenes about their rivalry, and the last 20 minutes which came so out of left field it was sort-of entertaining, were the only parts that intrigued me.
Since it is about an election, it’s of course about the politics as we see the behind-the-scenes of the election, as well, as Stewart casts the likes of Topher Grace and Natasha Lyonne in underused supporting roles as experts with analytics trying to win the election. All the behind-the-scenes stuff is just not that interesting and I saw a lot of it done better in Jason Reitman’s The Front Runner. Regardless, Jon Stewart’s Irresistible has some clever moments but they’re not enough to merit the runtime. Like his opening monologues on The Daily Show, it’s all a mixed bag.