Jon Stewart's disappointing return
During the darkest years of George W. Bush's presidency, when it seemed that the country was fracturing — Iraq and Afghanistan, recession and Katrina — I discovered the work of the comedian Bill Hicks. Hicks, who died at 32 of pancreatic cancer in 1994, had been a savage critic of Bush's father, among many other things, and his ferocious honesty felt restorative at a time of flimsy, lethal lies. As I listened to Hicks' old routines (little of what he said can be republished here), I couldn't help but wonder what he would have been saying if he'd lived — and think that his voice might have made a difference, however slight.
In the last four years, I've had similar thoughts about Jon Stewart, the former Daily Show host who stepped down in 2015 (and who is, it must be said, very much alive). During his 16 years as host, the Comedy Central show became a juggernaut of political satire, hitting a sweet spot of earnest outrage and playful humor that hadn't been seen before. And while there has since been no shortage of such commentary — Stewart's successor, Trevor Noah, and former Daily Show contributors John Oliver and Samantha Bee are prominent examples — it's been difficult not to wonder what Stewart, who had been so incisive for so long, makes of the country's current predicament.
Although he has surfaced occasionally — testifying to congress on behalf of 9/11 first responders, appearing on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert — he has been largely absent from a moment that begs for his critique. So it's no small disappointment that his creative silence has been broken with Irresistible — a feeble political satire, released on Friday, that he wrote, directed, and co-produced. Despite its maker, the film possesses little humor or insight; at a time of vicious partisan warfare, it hits with all the force of a marshmallow tumbling down the stairs.
Irresistible tells the story of Gary Zimmer, a slick Democratic strategist played by Steve Carell, who, on the strength of a YouTube clip, believes that Jack Hastings — a salt-of-the-earth Wisconsin farmer played by Chris Cooper — represents the future of his reeling party. Zimmer jets to the economically battered, fictional town of Deerlaken to beg Hastings to run for mayor. "Democrats are getting their asses kicked because guys like me don't know how to talk to guys like you," Zimmer says when they meet, one of countless lines that sound less like a character speaking than like Stewart making a point. "I really believe that you believe what I believe... that what is happening in this country is wrong."
Yet Irresistible barely touches on what is happening in America in 2020, or any other year. Stewart can't be faulted for not anticipating the strife that presently grips the nation, but his thesis — that What Really Ails Us are political consultants (embodied by Zimmer and a venomous GOP operative played by Rose Byrne) and the money they funnel into campaigns — feels laughably quaint. Irresistible begins with Donald Trump's election, but after the opening credits, he vanishes from the film. "[Trump] is, I think, the most talented rider of that wave [of media noise], but that wave is 60 years in the making," Stewart told The Atlantic, straining to explain the movie's Trump-shaped void. "The right in the country decided 60 years ago that the institutions considered credible were no longer serving their purpose... So what they did is built parallel structures... their own media." Yet the media — a seemingly ripe target for Stewart, whose Daily Show rebuked cable news' idiocy — is represented tepidly in the film, and social media, which has cleaved the country more cleanly than anything in recent memory, is scarcely mentioned at all. It isn't Irresistible's responsibility to list our political system's every fault, but what Stewart has omitted is glaring. It is like a doctor examining a terminally ill patient and declaring the problem to be hammer toe.
Like the similarly toothless Space Force, the Netflix series in which Carell also stars, Irresistible floats along in an amiable sitcom world where the stakes couldn't seem any lower. Although CNN and Fox News keep breaking in with inexplicable updates on this small-town mayoral race, the film never bothers, outside of Zimmer's speechifying, to explain why a Hastings victory would be significant. Stewart has said that the idea for Irresistible came from the campaign of Jon Ossoff, a Georgia Democrat who ran for Congress in a 2017 special election. "[There was] incredibly outsize importance placed on this one little race that became emblematic of the future for red and blue," he told The New York Times Magazine. "The national parties spent $50 million in one district in Georgia on this weird off-year congressional race."
While that is a lot to spend on a weird off-year congressional race, it's unclear why Stewart thought that the fundraising process — not, say, the stories of well-developed characters — would make for compelling cinema. Everyone in Deerlaken is a decent, honest sort — and despite the fact that, as Hastings mutters, "more than half of our storefronts are shut down" and "no matter what folks might wish for here, it ain't coming back," there is no sense of struggle. It is a place of kind smiles, warm looks, and delicious, fresh-baked streusel. Irresistible is a paean to the people of middle America that, by stripping away their complexities, leaves them utterly dehumanized.
Two of Stewart's greatest assets are his compassion and his lack of cynicism; in the Times Magazine piece, he spoke of the need to look past partisanship to "create a conversation around conditions... The right will talk about poverty a certain way, and the left will talk about poverty a different way, but poor people are still poor." Such centrist empathy was one of his strengths on The Daily Show, but as a filmmaker, his instinct to see everyone as fundamentally good is deadening. Without conflict, there's nothing to watch; Irresistible isn't so much a story as a collection of tired observations about the ills of election funding. It's about as fun as it sounds. By the time its twist ending arrives — a denouement so absurd as to make one yearn for The Happening-era Shyamalan — the viewer begins to wonder whether Irresistible's budget, like the $45 million raised for Hastings' campaign, might have been put to better use.
In promoting the film, Stewart has been subtly lowering expectations for it, as if he knows he's missed the mark. "I made a stupid movie about [money in politics], but underpinning that movie is a real thing," he told the Times Magazine; in comments to BBC News, he likened Irresistible to an Internet comedy bit. Perhaps most telling is a pre-release featurette in which he asks who really benefits from our campaign system. "I would just like people to think about that," he says, before adding, "If they want to." That's the movie he's made: polite, limp, and embarrassed by itself.
After 16 years of The Daily Show, Stewart has earned the right to do what he pleases, and to create what he wants to create. But Irresistible makes me feel as I would have if Bill Hicks had come back to life in 2005 — and then made a family-friendly sitcom that had nothing new to say. Sometimes, it seems, the wondering is more fruitful than the reality.
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