Producers: Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Jon Stewart and Lila Yacoub Director: Jon Stewart Screenplay: Jon Stewart Cast: Steve Carell, Rose Byrne, Chris Cooper, Mackenzie Davis, Topher Grace, Natasha Lyonne, Will Sasso, Brent Sexton, C.J. Wilson, Debra Messing, Eve Gordon, Christian Adam, Bill Irwin, Will McLaughlin, Blair Sams, Alan Aisenberg and Bruce Altman Distributor: Focus Features
In Jack Arnold’s 1959 “The Mouse That Roared,” the tiny European Duchy of Grand Fenwick, finding itself in financial distress, decided to invade the United States with its bow-and-arrow army and quickly surrender, knowing that the Americans were habitually generous with defeated foes. Things turned out quite differently from what they expected.
In Jon Stewart’s “Irresistible,” the situation seems to be reversed. It’s the little town of Deerlaken, Wisconsin, that’s invaded—not by a foreign country but by the Democratic and Republican parties. When the economically-suffering hamlet’s mayoral race goes viral, Washington power brokers decide to bring the full force of their resources to bear in deciding the outcome. It’s not American generosity but the power of money in today’s polarized politics that’s the object of the joke, but thanks to a closing twist, the outcome is equally unlikely. It would make the Grand Fenwickians smile.
There’s another way in which Stewart’s picture is reminiscent of Arnold’s. Both are satires, but very mild ones. One might expect greater sharpness and bite of Stewart, but instead he’s content with gentle ribbing that’s both even-handed and determined not to offend. The result is a film that’s pleasant, but rather bland.
The plot kicks in at a meeting of the Deerlaken city council, where Mayor Braun (Brent Sexton) is pushing a resolution denying voting rights and benefits to anyone who can’t provide a valid ID and proof of citizenship. Local farmer Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper), a Marine veteran, speaks out eloquently against the proposal, and his impassioned presentation goes out on the web, catching the attention of big-time Democratic strategist Gary Zimmer (Steve Carell) in Washington.
Still smarting over Hillary Clinton’s recent loss to Donald Trump, Zimmer sees Hastings as somebody who can reinvigorate his party’s appeal to the heartland voters his party has lost favor with. So he travels to Wisconsin on a private jet to persuade the down-to-earth guy to run as a Democrat against Braun, and offers his services as campaign manager. Though initially reluctant, Hastings and his pretty daughter Diana (Mackenzie Davis) eventually agree, and Gary starts assembling a volunteer staff for the underdog effort.
That gets the attention of the national Republican party, and soon Zimmer’s nemesis Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne) shows up to direct the Braun re-election campaign, bringing big money donors with her. Zimmer amps up the Democratic effort in response, even taking Hastings to a New York fund-raiser hosted by a super-rich member of the East Coast elite (Bruce Altman). Before it’s all over, we learn, some $45 million has been poured into the race, much of it funneled through quickly-formed superpacs supposedly independent of the campaigns.
Gary and Faith might have been painted in scathing terms, but that’s not Stewart’s way. As played by Carell, the Democrat is a somewhat less obtuse version of Michael Scott, always a bit behind the curve. It’s amusing, for instance, to see him try clumsily to blend in with the locals when he first arrives, but the cultural differences are never pushed too far. Byrne’s Republican operative, on the other hand, is depicted as a slinky, sarcastic clotheshorse, but her cynicism doesn’t come across as more than skin-deep. Both generate smiles with the TV commercials they cook up, but their love-hate face-offs are hardly of Tracy-Hepburn quality.
As for the rest, the pervasive attitude of the locals is one of niceness. That’s certainly true of Cooper’s Hastings and Davis’ Diana, but also of all the other locals, who are genially colorful in relatively low-key ways, whether it be the perky baker (Blair Sams), the owner of the bar above which Gary and Faith take rooms (C.J. Wilson), or the duo of Big and Little Mike (Will Sasso and Will McLaughlin), the burly but amiable giants Gary meets on his first night in town. Even Sexton’s Braun is essentially a good guy. It’s clear that Stewart’s sympathies lie with these ordinary folks, who make up what seems a modern Mayberry.
By contrast the members of the ever-expanding staffs brought in by Gary and Faith don’t make much of an impression, even when played by stalwarts like Topher Grace and Natasha Lyonne. These supposedly cutthroat operatives are good at numbers and theory, but human connections are not their forte—including with the audience. And there are some bizarre touches, like a cameo by Bill Irwin as an ancient donor who’s apparently undergone so many advanced operations that he’s wound up practically a robot.
Even in the portrayal of these East Coast invaders Stewart adopts a cheerfully affectionate tone that softens the satirical barbs about the state of modern American politics he aims to fire off. The result is engaging, but it never takes on the system with the aggressiveness it could have mustered. Instead it opts for a denouement that, while clever (and accurate, as the final clip shown in the closing credits indicates), allows for a happily non-partisan close.
With Georgia locations standing in for Wisconsin, the movie, with production design by Grace Yun and cinematography by Bobby Bukowski, looks fine, and though editors Jay Rabinowitz and Mike Selemon haven’t been able to make the twists in the final act ideally clear, overall the film moves smoothly, with Bryce Dessner’s score adding to the amiability.
“Irresistible” doesn’t really live up to its title, but if not one of the great political satires, its soothing balm is perhaps the right tonic for our incredibly contentious age.