Jon Stewart (director)
1h 41ins (length)
25 June 2022 (released)
26 June 2020
For those who kept an eye on American politics in the Bush and Obama eras, Jon Stewart was an indispensable source of humour and cutting truth on The Daily Show.
So it feels strange that his often exasperated voice has been largely absent in the Trump years, with Trevor Noah having taken over his old show, and his old colleague John Oliver arguably in his place as top crusading comedian.
Since then, Stewart has directed Rosewater, a drama about the real-life imprisonment of an Iranian journalist, and is now returning to write and direct a film about what used to be his home patch with the political satire Irresistible.
The film begins in the wake of Hillary Clinton's shock 2016 defeat to Donald Trump, with Democrat political strategist Gary Zimmer (Steve Carell) bereft and humiliated. Having spent his time spinning that his candidate is unbeatable and her numbers great, he finds his world and sense of his own political genius shattered.
There's hope, however, in the shape of retired Colonel Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper), a farmer from a small town of Deerlaken in Wisconsin (a swing state) whose speech outlining objections to cuts to local programmes goes viral on social media. Convincing himself he's found a new project that can show his party how to beat the ruthless Republican machine, Gary travels to the town to convince Colonel Jack to run for mayor.
With his nemesis Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne) and a ton of Republican money arriving to thwart him and Colonel Jack, the race draws national attention and becomes a test of whether Gary's new strategy can show Democrats how to win back what Fox News would call "real America".
Serious issue-based political satires have always been tricky to pull off. They have to show the detail of their subject in a way that's believable, but that unpicks its absurdity. Stewart is adept at this, carefully pillorying his targets - America's campaign finance rules and both parties' ham-fisted money-driven attempts to reach Americans they don't understand - albeit with far more altruistic intent on the Democrat side.
There are also some good laughs for the initiated and not, with troublesome nuns, Gary's problems adjusting to small town life, and media absurdity played for laughs. In the most cutting scene before a twist finale, Colonel Jack hilariously finds himself just as much an object of curiosity at a high-powered fundraising event in New York.
Cooper's Colonel Jack is arguably the best thing in the movie - with Carell not quite hitting his usual comedic heights, and a supporting cast including Mackenzie Davis, Topher Grace, and Natasha Lyonne underused but making the most of their roles.
Yet for all this and its admirable intent, Irresistible falls short. If it had come out six months ago, when American politics' great debates were over how the Democrats could beat Donald Trump in a world of fake news and billionaire finance, it might have been a wittily diverting examination of some of the issues in play. However, American politics is now in an existential crisis over its response to the coronavirus pandemic and how it tackles racial injustice following the death of George Floyd.
It's said the secret to comedy is timing, and that's true of political satire too. When the Clinton-based movie Primary Colors came out in 1998, it was shortly after the Lewinsky scandal broke. Armando Iannucci's In the Loop was released in 2009 - long after the Iraq War took place, but at a time when it was unresolved and still dominated the prism through which many saw British and American politics.
Important though the issues it parodies are, in some ways Irresistible seems to have missed its moment. Its style of gently poking the pompous feels out of date and underplayed when a U.S. President tells citizens to inject bleach and largely communicates in all-caps "LAW & ORDER!" tweets that look like a drunken attempt to get Alexa to pick a crime drama. Based as it is on themes highlighted by a historically expensive 2017 special election in Georgia, Irresistible feels it has arrived a little too late.
Perhaps this is why, ultimately, Stewart has largely kept his counsel. Events have just become too large and fast-moving for his scalpel-wielding, scrupulous approach to satire. When America is having a nervous breakdown, Irascible may fit the times better than Irresistible.