Review by William J. Hammon, Creator of I Actually Paid to See This blog
For more than a decade, Jon Stewart proved himself a master of political commentary and satire as host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show. In the five years since he left the program, Stewart’s life has become more multi-faceted. He runs a farm in New Jersey with his family, he continues to write and perform comedy in a limited capacity, and he’s become an even more outspoken political advocate – particularly when it comes to 9/11 first responders, going so far as to angrily testify on Capitol Hill to shame the Senate into more healthcare funding.
He’s also dipped his toes in the water of feature filmmaking. His first effort was the well-received Rosewater in 2014, which told the story of captured journalist Maziar Bahari (a story in which Stewart himself played a real-life small role). It was a daring film that not only told a great story of survival and resilience, but also spoke to the necessity of the fourth estate. Now, Stewart gives us his sophomore effort, Irresistible, which also highlights an essential element of our national discourse, namely the need to remove money influences from politics, especially when that priority is at the expense of tangible efforts to change ordinary people’s lives for the better.
Stewart frames his satire around the fictional small town of Deerlaken, Wisconsin (pronounced “deer-LOCK-in,” not “deer-LAKE-in” as we learn for a late-film gag), where a retired Marine vet and farmer named Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper, who competes daily with Sam Elliot for the title of “America’s Most Folksy Actor”) intrudes upon a town council meeting to speak up for the rights of the undocumented immigrants in town who would be adversely affected by a new ID law. His impassioned speech about his faith informing him to be his brother’s keeper and how politicians treat principles as “hobbies” is caught on camera and goes viral, leading Democratic Party strategist Gary Zimmer (Stewart’s former Daily Show correspondent Steve Carell) to see Hastings as a new rural face of the party. He jets out to Wisconsin to get “The Colonel” to run for mayor.
In short order, the town becomes a media circus. After Hillary Clinton’s loss in the 2016 election, Zimmer (and the DNC at large) has struggled to refine a rallying message for the heartland, Wisconsin being one of the three states that Donald Trump won by a razor-thin margin to become President despite losing the popular vote by 3 million. As such, Zimmer sees a unique opportunity in Hastings, and exploits the situation for millions of campaign dollars from wealthy donors (including a hilarious one-off moment with a semi-conscious robot-man). The furor also attracts the attention of the Republican Party, which dispatches Zimmer’s rival Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne) to pump up the campaign of the incumbent GOP mayor. Brewster takes her assignment with glee, not because she believes in anything the mayor stands for, but simply for the joy of “owning the libs” and crushing Zimmer’s dreams, and the dreams of progressives by extension.
Caught in the middle of all this is Hastings’ daughter, Diana, played by the amazing Mackenzie Davis. She is the film’s conscience, as well as the audience cipher for all the craziness surrounding this campaign, which expands way beyond the bounds of a town of 5,000 people. Her performance is smart, grounded, and in one of the better decisions of Stewart’s script, finds clever ways to eschew the tired trope of older men developing romantic relationships with ingenues half their age.
The level of Stewart’s comedy here is not subtle. At times, Carell and Byrne’s performances can feel one-dimensional. Zimmer is a patronizing asshole who cares more about his political redemption than the needs of the town, while Brewster antagonizes him for the sake of antagonizing. But what makes the film work is that the obvious nature of the jokes is still quite funny, and given the post-truth political era in which we currently reside, sometimes you have to be obvious to the point of being obtuse to get the point across.
It should also be noted that despite Stewart’s more liberal political leanings, no side is safe in this scathing bit of scorched earth satire. Zimmer and Brewster are introduced in the film’s first scene in a “spin room” for reporters after one of the 2016 debates. Midway through their talking points, both of them break the fourth wall (without actually looking at the camera) to announce that this entire process is bullshit and that their entire job is to lie to the press and to the people, and yet we as a society gobble it up. The opening credits then ensue with a photo montage of candidate diner visits (from both parties) to the tune of Bob Seger’s “Still the Same” cutting to Hastings driving to the town hall meeting while playing “Rhinestone Cowboy.” Even the soundtrack beats you over the head at the right moments.
Democrats have their hypocrisies called out throughout the film. Zimmer is so removed from the heartland that he has to study the Wikipedia page on Wisconsin while watching old Green Bay Packers films in a half-assed attempt to find commonality. A white lady in the party offices talks over the black woman sitting next to her to expound on her belief that the group should reach out to minorities more. Zimmer hires analytics teams to cover every square inch of the town with demographically-targeted pamphlets, never realizing that a group of single women was a convent before sending literature about supporting birth control, a fact he could have easily found out by stepping outside and walking two blocks. He panders and patronizes the townsfolk to an insulting degree, and every reveal that countermands his efforts is a delicious bit of comeuppance.
On the right, Rose Byrne herself is a stand-in for many of the public wrongs of the GOP. She’s an entitled “pretty blonde” who can’t – or won’t – attempt to empathize with the life challenges of any other person. She brushes off slandering people to their faces by saying, “We love the heartland,” because she knows rural voters will likely side with Republicans no matter what they say. She only even enters the fray of this contest for the sake of winning and demoralizing Democrats further. A small town mayoral race has basically no national stakes, but it’s more important to have another “Democrats Lose Again” headline than anything else.
And finally, the media itself takes a lot of heat. All three major cable news networks are represented in the film (CNN, MSNBC, Fox), but with the exception of a Candy Crowley cameo during the credits and some off-screen sound bites from Joe Scarborough and Mike Brzezinski, no real journalists are featured. Stewart cleared the logos and graphics packages, but didn’t bother to recruit actual cable news people to speak for themselves. And honestly, given the shots fired, you can see why. Current Daily Show correspondent Desi Lydic plays a Fox “News Bunny” (real term they actually use) who questions Hastings’ patriotism by running as a Democrat even though he’s a decorated veteran. An MSNBC host takes a blatant lie from Brewster at face value and changes her line of questioning accordingly (Zimmer laments after the segment that because she said it, it’s true now, even if the lie is proven). CNN changes their “Breaking News” chyrons to make shitty puns. Every segment ends just shy of exposing some truth with “We have to leave it there” and either go to commercial, a sponsored segment, or random soft news that doesn’t matter. Because of the 24-hour news cycle and the money being poured into the race, every network tries to spin this tiny mayoral race into a national referendum.
Everyone takes a licking (literally, in Carell’s case), but that also causes the film to suffer in some key areas. The jokes are almost universally funny, but in devoting so much attention to those moments, the empathy for the townspeople gets lost in the shuffle at times, which sort of defeats the purpose, given that the plight of the town is the reason Hastings is ostensibly running in the first place. Also, thanks to the over-the-top nature of the set pieces, the moralizing in the film’s otherwise fantastic finale comes off as perfunctory and preachy. Even some of the more innocent and fun running gags about small town life (everyone knows everyone, a local bakery can make you orgasm with a pastry, tech advancements are low, etc.) eventually get ignored for the sake of a plot detour to a New York donor’s dinner party complete with overly sensitive menu selections depending on which trendy, non-medical diet the houseguests are on this month. We get it. Big city elites are detached from reality. If you’re going to make that joke, go full bore and explore why only one party seems to get any flack for that when both parties do it as a force of habit.
But in the end, what matters overall is the message and the humor. Both of them are hammered home repeatedly, relentlessly, and without apology. This is rightfully so because of the current state of the world, where we need to be force fed simple ideas like morality and corruption again. At times it feels like Jon Stewart is cramming five years of lost airtime into 100 minutes of film, but because it’s so funny, because the message is so needed, and because the performances are just that good, the zeal can not only be forgiven, but outright endorsed.