Since Jon Stewart left The Daily Show in 2015, I can’t say I’ve missed him. All credit to the man, whose emotional testimony to Congress four years later in support of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund was for a worthy cause he’s championed for two decades, but near the end of his Comedy Central reign, he seemed exhausted and bitter, no longer able to turn the daily political and media nonsense into good jokes. He came across as exasperated and smug — so proud of his pat, over-it-all observations that he knew would get a warm response from his loyal liberal audience.
I’m pretty closely aligned to Stewart politically, but near the end there, watching his show wasn’t insightful or cathartic anymore — it was the sound of a guy congratulating himself and us for “getting” it. Where The Colbert Report allowed Stephen Colbert a fictional character to satirize on a nightly basis, Stewart only had himself up there, and he couldn’t have looked more lonely or lost. When he said goodbye in August of that year, it felt like a bit of a relief. He’d done amazing work for years, but that was long ago. It was time for everyone to move on.
Stewart has stayed out of the public eye for the most part, but when he returned to do the occasional rant on Colbert’s CBS show, it was a reminder that his voice wasn’t needed anymore. Sure, I also hate Trump, but soon newer, fresher perspectives were doing that work in funnier and more thought-provoking ways: Trevor Noah, Samantha Bee, Seth Meyers, John Oliver, John Oliver and John Oliver. As far as I was concerned, Stewart could rest easy, knowing full well that a whole crop of successful new talk shows had modeled their programs on what he’d achieved on The Daily Show. That’s quite a legacy.
Still, I’m sure there are many who do miss his voice and will be keen to check out Irresistible, his new political comedy about a contentious mayoral race in small-town Wisconsin that, you see, is a Metaphor For How We Live Today. If you’re curious to watch the movie, you won’t be surprised to discover that you agree with just about everything it has to say about campaign finance, our two-party system, the ugliness of cable news and the cutthroat nature of our modern elections. But like his Daily Show in its final years, Irresistible doesn’t discuss those issues in any way that feels revelatory or galvanizing. This is a film that harps on obvious ills, lets you know it’s annoyed with those obvious ills and then pats you on the back for also knowing they’re obvious ills. Irresistible tells you what you already know and then holds for applause.
The movie starts off promisingly enough. Stewart’s former Daily Show correspondent Steve Carell plays Gary Zimmer, a disheartened Democratic strategist who, like a lot of his brethren, loudly predicted Hillary Clinton’s win in 2016. Now disenchanted, he’s lost faith in the process, and America in general, but his hope is restored when he sees a viral video out of Deerlaken, Wisconsin, where a farmer and retired Marine, Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper), has given an impassioned speech at a local town hall meeting, arguing for the rights of the undocumented. Gary sees in Jack the Real America, and he flies to Wisconsin to encourage him to run for mayor, convinced that this seeming red-stater is actually the kind of budding leader the Democratic Party needs on its side.
The growly Jack eventually agrees, but he’s resistant to Gary’s slickness, and so is Jack’s daughter Diana (Mackenzie Davis), who doesn’t want this D.C. operative condescending to her dad or their small-town ways. But soon, the Republicans send Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne), a ferocious campaigner, to help Deerlaken’s incumbent mayor win another term. Faith and Gary have a past — both professionally and personally — and nothing would make her happier than to defeat him in one more election. She doesn’t want to just win but also break his spirit: Gary may be a wheeler-dealer, but he’s still an idealist who believes in the goodness of the American people. Faith, by comparison, is pure evil, believing in nothing and happy to lie and distort in order to ensure Jack goes down to defeat.
After suffering through Space Force, I’m happy to report that Carell is loads better here, further proof that he’s better now as a dramatic actor than as a comedic one. Gary is a potential cliché — the big-city sophisticate who learns important life lessons by going to a seeming hayseed community — but Carell and Stewart (at least for a while) try to make him more complicated than that. With his fussy style and slightly haughty air, Gary definitely feels superior to these Wisconsinites, but he genuinely respects Jack, who’s the furthest thing from a coastal elite. If anything, Jack represents a manly, no-nonsense common sense that’s largely missing from the spineless Democratic establishment, which is why Gary both admires and is somewhat intimidated by the guy. Gary may be an insider, but he’s never lost his sense of what makes the country so great — and in Jack, he may have found a winning embodiment of those values.
Similarly, Cooper sidesteps his character’s predictable trajectory. Neither a country bumpkin nor a fount of crusty wisdom, Jack is a believably “average” guy who thinks he can do some good for his neighbors by running for office. In stark contrast to the dimwitted politician he played in John Sayles’ Silver City, Cooper here is restrained and unassuming, portraying a farmer who, probably like a lot of Americans, doesn’t really think about politics as something that directly affects his life. And because Cooper is so effortless at conveying a common touch, his Jack consistently is taken aback by the circus-like spectacle of campaigning — never more so than when Gary whisks him off to New York to meet well-heeled Democratic donors. In most films, the scene would be bullshit — an emotionally manipulative moment where the patriotic small-town guy speaks truth to the out-of-touch cosmopolitans — but Cooper actually imbues the touching scene with just the right amount of subtlety.
Unfortunately, subtlety isn’t Irresistible’s long suit. Stewart made one film before this, 2014’s Rosewater, which dealt with the false imprisonment of journalist Maziar Bahari by Iranian officials. That subject matter lends itself to a strident, self-righteous approach, but to Stewart’s credit, he kept the drama understated, maybe in part because he felt a natural deference to the true story and a culture he only knew as an outsider. (Ironically, Rosewater may ultimately be best remembered as the reason Stewart took a hiatus from The Daily Show, which allowed Oliver to take over hosting duties, leading to his eventually bolting for HBO’s Last Week Tonight.)
But the restraint he showed in Rosewater isn’t much in evidence in Irresistible, which plays like a greatest-hits of his familiar grievances during his Daily Show days: Republicans are liars; the amount of money in politics is immoral; we’ve lost the ability to find common ground with our opponents; cable news feeds on controversy; and on and on and on.
Is Stewart right on all these points? Of course. Is it interesting when he parades each of them in front of us, as if saying the same thing for the millionth time will finally make a difference? Not at all. But Stewart can’t see beyond his own indignation — or, frankly, his self-satisfaction for what he perceives as his ability to accurately diagnose the country’s woes. This is the dilemma of having a program where you got to talk all the time — you think your job is to talk at us (or down to us) in perpetuity.
Eventually, Irresistible gets hamstrung by convoluted plot twists, most of them predicated on the idea that, hey, we all know our political system is crazy, right? Stewart can’t figure out what to do with Byrne, one of our funniest comedic actors forced to play the most boring version of a soulless D.C. strategist. (How I longed for Kathryn Hahn’s far superior take on a similar character in Parks and Recreation.) There’s one potentially great surprise near the end of the film that skewers the unconscious biases we in the audience have about these characters — and this kind of movie — but Stewart undercuts it by being too clever, and also too proud of himself.
It’s a failing of Stewart’s that carries over from his final years on the Comedy Central show. As the Daily Show grind began to wear on him — as he struggled to continue to find the GOP’s hypocrisy and dishonesty funny — the comic seemed to slip into a self-amused, arrogant certainty that he alone could see what a horrendous country we had become. (That many years of being called a hero and a truth-teller and the voice of reason will probably do that to you.) I can’t say I learned much near the end of The Daily Show, other than how miserable and tired Stewart was. He became less interested in being satirical and more invested in making sure we knew he was right.
On his final show back in 2015, in his final address to camera, Jon Stewart mentioned how he hoped that The Daily Show was “a conversation” between him and the audience. And then he laughed self-deprecatingly, adding: “A conversation, which by the way, I have hogged — and I apologize for that. I should have, at some point, turned the camera around and [said], ‘So, do you guys have anything to add or say?’ I really have been dominating this in a very selfish way.”
With Irresistible, he’s still hogging the discussion — and talking a lot without saying much of anything.