Jon Stewart was a lodestar for large swaths of left-leaning Americans. During the Bush administration, no one was better at skewering Dubya, Cheney, and their Fox News cheerleaders. But then The Rally to Restore Sanity did not have its intended goal, and his disposition behind The Daily Show desk turned sour. Irresistible, the new film written and directed by Stewart, suggests he never quite recovered. This is a deeply unfunny film: cynical, incurious, and lazy. Every character is an inelegantly constructed straw man, and Stewart’s idea of national politics has never evolved beyond the 2006 Congressional midterms. On top of all that, he is also an incompetent director. This is the worst film of the year.
It is the day after the 2016 Presidential election, and Democratic political strategist Gary Zimmer (Steve Carell) is grief-stricken. He does not see any future for the party, at least until he catches a viral clip of a man in Wisconsin standing up to his city council. Gary convinces himself that salt of the earth, “real Americans” like him is where he can make inroads for the next election, so he travels to rural Wisconsin and meets Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper), a former Marine. After some cajoling, Jack agrees to run for mayor of the small town where he lives, and Gary brings the DC machine to help him. The election becomes a metaphor for our political future, as Gary’s nemesis, Republican strategist Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne), swoops in to support the incumbent. While all this happens, Gary senses sparks between himself and Jack’s daughter Diana (Mackenzie Davis).
There is no reason this setup could not work as an incisive, witty political satire. The trouble begins with how Stewart shapes his characters. Gary is a reductive, one-dimensional husk of the DC establishment. “Latte liberal” is a devastating burn for this guy. He thinks Budweiser makes him authentic with the Wisconsinites, and literally uses cattle as a prop. The trouble is that this kind of Beltway insider no longer exists, at least not in the way Stewart thinks. One indicative aside is how Gary, a stand-in for all professional-class liberals, has a throwaway line about how cheese curds are gross. Few coastal elites are like this, if any, and I happen to live nearby a DC brewpub where cheese curds is the tastiest thing on the menu (I order them often).
Indeed, Irresistible has a reductive view of the ongoing culture war, and not just because it makes no attempt to understand racism or sexism within it (although it is not Stewart’s fault, the timing of Irresistible could not be worse, as America appears on the verge of real engagement and reckoning). Gary has as much depth as a political cartoon, and the others do not fare much better. If the film is meant to be a quasi-realistic depiction of modern politics, then Stewart’s poor framing means his conclusions are less than useless. They are insulting to the audience.
Many comedians have gone on to become gifted filmmakers. Mel Brooks, Mike Nichols, and Chris Rock come immediately to mind. Stewart has none of their style, or insight into human behavior. Compositions in Irresistible look flatter than a shitty campaign ad, and what’s worse, Stewart flubs basic visual storytelling so badly that none of his punch lines land. Some scenes lack basic techniques like camera coverage, and the cumulative effect is boredom, or gnawing unease. There is a twist toward the end of the film, one that requires flashback and thinking about early scenes in new ways, and the stilted film grammar means the surprise will be met with little more than a shrug. This is all to say that I never once laughed during Irresistible, and Stewart is so bad at this he makes Rose Byrne unfunny.
Stewart halfheartedly attempts to mock modern political tools. Gary’s cadre of DC insiders include data-obsessed nerds who would rather track consumer habits than talk to voters, leading to a subplot about the flaws in this kind of analysis. Stewart knows it is absurd to use Five Thirty Eight techniques in a small local election. The trouble is that he thinks you do not. Throughout his film, Stewart condescends to his audience: through ignorance or malice, he does not know his long-term fans are now much more politically sophisticated than he is. One glaring omission is Stewart’s marked disinterest in social media, and its role in modern political communication. Stewart is not on Twitter, but he was right about punditry once in 2004, and has missed the part where ten thousands of liberals make a sport over being a dick to Tucker Carlson every day.
Jon Stewart’s influence and judge of talent cannot be overstated. He helped start the careers of Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Wyatt Cenac, Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah, John Oliver, and others I’m sure I’m forgetting. All these comedians are relevant to today’s discourse, in one way or another, because they have the ability to evolve with the current political climate. In Last Week Tonight, for example, Oliver talks about systemic racism in a way that has eluded Stewart his entire career. Few people of color have speaking roles in Irresistible, and when they do appear, they’re used the same way Gary uses cattle. Cynicism has an important role in comedy, although it has to be earned through a deeper understanding of the way things are. Sorry to Bother You understood that, and so did The Death of Stalin.
In Irresistible, Stewart reveals himself as a smug misanthrope with no empathy or artistic vision. With any luck, he’ll abandon this phase of his career, returning to advocacy for 9/11 first responders and veterans. Who knows? He might be the kind of effective DC insider he loathes so much.
Irresistible is available on VOD platforms starting Friday, June 26.