There's probably no one better-positioned to make a political comedy right now than Jon Stewart. Years of hosting The Daily Show turned him into one of our most astute political satirists. Stewart has something big on his mind with Irresistible, although you don't find out entirely what that is until the very end. Once all the pieces assemble, it becomes clear how ambitious the story is. The overall goal is to explore the role of money in political campaigning. That may not sound funny on the surface but, a couple missteps aside, the movie earns consistent laughs by mining the absurdity found in the subject.
Steve Carell plays Gary Zimmer, a Democratic political strategist. He recognizes that his party has lost touch with voters in the Heartland and is determined to rectify that before the next presidential election. An opportunity presents itself when he sees a video of retired Marine Colonel Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper) defending the rights of his small Wisconsin town's undocumented workers to the local council. Gary thinks Jack might be a “secret” Democrat in a deeply red Midwest area, so he travels there to convince the man to run for mayor. Moreover, he promises to pump a lot of Democratic money into the campaign. The hidden goal is to test-run a new kind of candidate for the future.
Jack agrees, but the plan doesn't come without a few hitches. Turning the down-home Colonel into a more smooth-talking politician proves to be challenging. Then there's the arrival of Faith Brewster (Rose Bryne), a ruthless Kellyanne Conway-esque Republican strategist who shows up solely to make Gary miserable by pumping right-wing money toward Jack's opponent. Suddenly, this small town becomes a microcosm for national elections.
Stewart deftly uses that concept to skewer the overall political machine. It might be a mayoral election in a podunk Wisconsin burg, but both Gary and Faith rely on the usual tactics: dirty campaign ads, trying to outspend the other side, harvesting voter data, etc. On that last count, Topher Grace and Natasha Lyonne co-star as Kurt and Tina, Gary's polling and research experts. They attempt to read the pulse of the town, sometimes incorrectly, as when Tina advises sending pro-choice literature to a pocket of women in the area, not realizing that they're nuns in a convent. Irresistible has a lot of fun lampooning the way money and messaging can fail or succeed.
Other humor comes from the interactions between Gary and Faith. They have a love/hate relationship, recognizing that they're cut from the same cloth despite having opposing viewpoints. Each desperately wants to beat the other. Byrne is hilarious as the profane, amoral Faith, especially when she's going out of her way to irritate Gary. Carell, meanwhile, does an excellent job conveying how a slick DC liberal struggles to comprehend conservative small-town life. The contrast between these two characters is very funny.
Cooper holds down the center, giving Irresistible's comedy some grounding. He's particularly brilliant in a scene where Jack travels to New York, stands in front of a room full of rich potential donors, and uses his hometown charm to convince them that they should care about him. It might be the single smartest moment in the whole movie. Mackenzie Davis does good supporting work as Jack's daughter. She's essentially a surrogate for the audience – the character taking in all the information and trying to process it.
Irresistible is, for the most part, smart and humorous about the influence of money in politics. When Stewart falters, though, he falters big. Intermittently, he tosses in overly goofy scenes that are tonally at odds with everything else. A sequence involving a wealthy donor who had a stroke and can now only move via a motorized full-body brace that makes him look like RoboCop falls completely flat. So does a series of false endings, complete with end credit scroll. Those broad bits simply don't work in a story that's otherwise firmly on the satiric side.
A few dud scenes fortunately don't ruin the overall vibe, which draws you in with sharp comedy and often stinging observations. Irresistible makes a valuable point in its final minutes. Stewart isn't just interested in political money, he's also interested in the loopholes that make accounting for that money difficult. What the film says could not be more timely. In that sense, this is the political comedy we need right now.
Stay through the (real) end credits for a jaw-dropping explanation of how the plot is more plausible than you might think.
out of four
Irresistible is rated R for language including sexual references. The running time is 1 hour and 41 minutes.