Jon Stewart dove back into politics with a splash Friday when his second film, “Irresistible,” premiered online.
The 102-minute comedy-drama — which follows a highly-contested mayoral race in the small town of Deerlaken, Wisconsin — is classic Stewart. It’s a great editorial on the mechanics of the political system, and an even better essay on how we got to where we are today.
Unfortunately, it’s not a great story.
The movie stars Stewart’s longtime friend and coworker, Steve Carell, as Democratic politico Gary Zimmer. When Marine veteran Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper) achieves internet fame by making a heartfelt speech about immigration to his town council, Gary heads to Deerlaken to turn Hastings into the town’s first Democratic mayor in more than 50 years.
Gary’s Republican opponent, Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne), soon follows, kicking off a political catfight. The heart of the movie is the irony of Gary and Faith’s tactics.
“All you have is fear,” Gary says to Faith at one point.
“Now we’re getting somewhere,” Faith responds. “$20 bucks says that I do better with fear than you do with shame.”
In one second, Gary is a passionate idealist, and in the next, he’s ruthlessly practical. When Faith lies directly to a reporter about her hometown, Gary condemns and praises her cheap tactics in the same breath. Soon enough, even he resorts to playing dirty, encouraging Hastings to run an attack ad about the drug problem of his opponent’s brother.
“Is this politics?” asks Hastings’ daughter, Diana (Mackenzie Davis).
“It’s just math,” Gary says. “We need what they get plus one. That’s all. And if I can’t get that by getting more people to vote for your dad, then I have to get fewer people to vote for Braun.”
For “Daily Show” junkies, the piece is a reassuring critique of U.S. politics. Stewart shows the same unhesitating courage to say things no-one wants to hear, taking on the news media and politicians alike.
The movie is filled with shocking, laugh-out-loud moments that ring all too true to viewers sick of the 24-hour news cycle. Plus, the documentary-style of filmmaking gives an eerily accurate picture of midwestern America after the 2016 election — from the boarded up shop fronts to the casual corruption of local politics.
The characters are more caricature than people, however. And even as they strengthen the satire, they weaken the overall narrative. Stewart never fully explores the love story between either Gary and Faith or Gary and Diana, simply introducing the idea to make a point.
Much of the movie feels like a set of disconnected comedy sketches about campaigning, super PACs and network news. Moments range from entirely believable — the distribution of pamphlets about birth control to a convent full of nuns — to absurd — the entrance of ancient billionaire Elton Chambers.
The film ends on a hopeful note, with Jack and Diana Hastings tricking two national political parties out of millions of dollars, which is then used to rebuild a local school. Of course, it then immediately undermines that ending, speeding through three confusing vignettes that leave the audience wondering what’s real and what’s not.
There are seeds of greatness in the film. Moments that could have grown into a moving experience. The lesson to be learned is that you should never give one person complete creative control over a project, no matter how talented he is. With Stewart in complete control of production, the movie becomes an extended segment of “The Daily Show” rather than a Hollywood hit.