Recently, Jon Stewart attempted to make headlines. On “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” Stewart condemned the Trump administration, then said, “He’s Donald Swamp. Old Swampy Don. Let’s trend it.”
Predictably, “Swampy Don” didn’t trend. Instead the phrase sounded like a toothless moniker that doesn’t comment on the civil rights protest happening across the country or the administration’s handling of the pandemic. Compare this statement with Stewart’s legendary 2004 appearance on CNN’s “Crossfire,” when the firebrand comedian managed to turn the studio audience against the show’s hosts, railing against media sensationalism and virtually ending Tucker Carlson’s time at CNN.
With Stewart’s newest film, “Irresistible,” he appears to be making up for lost time, applying his brand of observational comedy and reveling in Washington D.C.’s inherent ridiculousness. Sadly, “Irresistible” has more in common with the “Swampy Don” nickname than it does with Stewart’s early work, serving as a snapshot of an old-world comedian out of his depth in modern American politics.
“Irresistible” follows Gary Zimmer (Steve Carell), a Democratic National Committee operative who, after the 2016 election, goes searching for a candidate who connects with midwestern Americans. Zimmer finds his ideal politician in Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper), a former Marine colonel running for mayor of a small Wisconsin town.
With a deeply confused tone and an element of arrogance, “Irresistible” never reaches its intended heights, finding a way to be simultaneously dull and condescending.
As Zimmer, Carell manages an adequate performance buried under a mountain of cliches. Playing the “coastal elite” archetype, Zimmer’s an entirely one-note character, acting as the latte-drinking, Tesla-driving liberal political operator who can’t relate to “real” Americans. Attempting to serve as a denunciation of the Washington D.C. establishment, Zimmer’s character only further proves how embedded “Irresistible” is in its own world of cable news and political conventions.
Following up “Space Force,” Carell has now appeared in his second failed political satire of 2020, putting his career in a rather difficult position. While Carell has managed to prove himself as a quality dramatic actor since his departure from “The Office,” his past few years of choices give the impression of an actor attempting to hold on to relevancy as he enters an older stage in his career.
Opposite Carell, Cooper is rather impressive as Hastings, developing a full character who manages to legitimately overcome script limitations based on charisma alone. As the film’s mouthpiece for Stewart’s famed monologues against the political establishment, Cooper delivers rather pompous, confused sentiments with a sense of ease and charm.
Hastings is another archetype — a straight-talking, no-nonsense American idealist drawn directly from Frank Capra’s films “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” While the role may feel cliched, Cooper remains one of the best character actors in Hollywood, raising the material as much as he can.
Stewart’s greatest skill has always been his ability to assemble talent, giving comic stars like Carell, John Oliver, Samantha Bee and Stephen Colbert opportunities to shine on “The Daily Show.” With “Irresistible,” Stewart relies on a talented cast of veteran actors who admirably attempt to power through a mundane and confusing ideology. Some standouts include Rose Byrne as a Kellyanne Conway-esque Republican spokesperson and Mackenzie Davis as Hastings’ quick-witted daughter.
Yet for all of the talent on screen, “Irresistible” still feels like Stewart recycling his old comedic bits with diminishing returns. Critiquing super PACs, Koch brothers-inspired political donors and sensationalist cable news programs, “Irresistible” is firmly in Stewart’s comfort zone, but each of these topics is discussed without the hard edge that made “The Daily Show” so special.
Since Stewart stepped away from the show in 2015, American politics have drastically changed. Stewart has occasionally returned to the public eye during this stretch of time, most notably with his occasional appearances on “The Late Show,” yet each one of his monologues over that stretch gives the impression of a comedian incapable of tackling the problems presented by the current administration.
Much has already been made of “Irresistible” failing because of the pandemic and outpouring of protests across the world, as the movie’s representation of modern American politics now seems bizarrely incomplete. This observation is true to a point, and a moment in the film when Republican pollsters turn away citizens in Black Lives Matter T-shirts likely plays differently than it would’ve a year ago.
Yet, this criticism relies on the falsehood that “Irresistible” is a movie with an understanding of the modern American political system. Instead, the movie feels locked in the pre-2015 era when Stewart ruled late-night television and political tensions were, if not lighter than, at least less publicized.
Contact Chris Carr at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Instagram and Twitter @Breeze_Culture.