Premise: A Democratic strategist helps a retired veteran run for mayor in a small, conservative Midwest town.
By transposing a high stakes political arena onto a small town rural America setting, Jon Stewart’s Irresistible takes a relatively low key approach to its ribbing of the world of campaign finance. It is not simply a “fish out of water” story. Nor does it attempt to romanticize the quaint small town it occupies. Instead, Stewart uses this juxtaposition to call attention to the absurdity of campaign fundraising in a fairly unique manner. And although the approach is surprisingly refreshing in this era of fourth wall breaking Adam McKay political and socio-economic commentary films, Irresistible falters a bit on the road to its message.
Irresistible follows Gary Zimmer (Steve Carell), a Democratic strategist on the rebound following Trump’s unexpected win in the 2016 election. When he catches wind of an impassioned speech by Marine veteran Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper) to the mayor of his small Wisconsin town, Gary decides to capitalize on the man’s passion by creating a new kind of Democrat that will appeal to the rural demographic. The intention is to carry this idea through to the national level to help swing Republican voters to the Dem’s side. In order to do this, Gary agrees to help get Jack elected in the local mayoral race.
What’s most striking about Irresistible’s approach to skewering the process of campaign financing and fundraising is that it doesn’t use the town as fodder for easy comedy. In fact, many of the townspeople are presented free of satire and far away from any punchlines at their expense. The owner of the coffee shop who is overly friendly to Gary (despite not bothering to get to know his coffee preference) is one example of a character whose charm manages to be unimpeded even when she lets loose a passive aggressive aside when he refuses a few pastries.
Likewise, Big Mike (Will Sasso) is one of a pair of men Gary first meets at the town’s local bar. They have all the makings of the cliché small town tough guys. However, Stewart wisely steers away from this narrative trapping by making them affable and well-spoken. This subversion of expectations is intentional and a technique Stewart returns to a couple more times throughout the film to solid effect.
Thankfully, Stewart doesn’t take the McKay approach to political storytelling. However, there is a close call in the opening scene in which we see Gary and Republican strategist Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne) speaking with reporters following the 2016 election. The scene ends with both strategists plainly spelling out the role of spin and the act of guiding the media in political campaigns. It ends with Gary saying “fuck you, America” with all but a wink to the audience. It’s incongruous with the tone of the rest of the movie and feels out of place. Fortunately, Irresistible doesn’t get in over its head with these cute attempts at clever storytelling that can easily overstay their welcome and devolve into condescension if handled improperly.
The route the film takes to get to its overall satisfying ending is slightly bumpy. Gary’s rival Faith arrives in the town to help the incumbent mayor (Brent Sexton) run his campaign. The film pits Faith and Gary against one another but doesn’t concern itself with their history or anything of meaning to their rivalry aside from their differing campaign tactics. It doesn’t ruin the movie, but it is a weak link.
Diana Hastings (Mackenzie Davis), Jack’s daughter, has a more satisfying arc in the movie that benefits from more interaction with our lead character. There are hints of romance between Gary and Diana that doesn’t get explored too thoroughly. Instead, Diana becomes a guiding light for Gary to gain insight into the town, the townspeople, and the politics he has thrust himself into.
Chris Cooper does a fine, though underutilized, job as Jack Hastings. There is a scene at a fundraising event where Jack spells out the film’s central thesis in front of a group of potential donors to his campaign. Again, the film wisely avoids the Jimmy Stewart “aw shucks” small town man grappling with big government approach. Instead, Jack’s moment is calling attention to the absurdity of the campaign process in a common sense manner that side-steps any mere “fish out of water” pretense. It is the film’s most pivotal scene and works wonderfully.
While some characterization is slightly underwhelming, Irresistible finds easy to grasp ways to expose the seedier aspects of campaigning. Janet (Natasha Lyonne), a member of Gary’s A-Team of analysts, uses geographic and demographic data to determine where and what the campaign should send to citizens. Instead of exploring the ethics of data mining and targeted advertising, Stewart presents the strategy clearly and delivers one of the movie’s biggest comedic beats. This leaves the audience entertained and free to make up their own mind about the actions of the campaign without being pressured to take a hard stance.
Although Irresistible feels slightly clunky and directionless at times, it pays off well with an insightful and clear statement about the absurdity of political campaigns. The film holds back its best comedy bits until it unleashes a flood of funny in its last 20 minutes. The way Irresistible manages to stay grounded and focused on its message while indulging in comedy that veers close to absurdity is a testament to Stewart’s writing.
About the Writer: Matt Hurt is the creator of ObsessiveViewer.com. He also created, hosts, and produces The Obsessive Viewer, Anthology, and Tower Junkies podcasts. He is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association and lives in Indianapolis with his cat Pizza Roll.