“I don’t kid,” Donald Trump said last week, when asked if he was (as White House aides had claimed) “joking” about telling his Coronavirus team to “slow the testing down”. By the time you read this, he may well be claiming that he never said any of the words captured on camera. Who knows? Even those rolling news networks sympathetic to the president’s chicanery are struggling to keep up with the tsunami of untruths, falsehoods, and barefaced lies that now pass for policy in the US. As for political satire, it’s largely indistinguishable from the insanity of an administration flailing chaotically through economic, racial and medical turmoil.
Amid such horrors, there’s something reassuringly nostalgic about Irresistible, the second feature from former Daily Show host Jon Stewart. It’s not just that the film was shot in 2019, before the current crises. It’s more that Stewart adopts a gentle Capra-esque tone, looking beyond the ghastliness of the current incumbent, focusing instead on the wider, non-partisan problems that beset American politics.
Steve Carell plays Gary Zimmer, a liberally minded, corporate-mouthed (and typically untrustworthy) political strategist who was blindsided by Hillary’s defeat in 2016. Realising that the Democrats are in urgent need of a non-elite, “rural-friendly” face, he leaps upon a viral video of Colonel Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper, oozing old-fashioned sincerity) standing up to a town council meeting in the remote Wisconsin backwater of Deerlaken. “If you can’t live your principles in the bad times,” Jack tells the council, “I guess they’re not principles – they’re just hobbies.”
A marine veteran, farmer, and (most remarkably) a Democrat, Jack is everything Gary’s party needs, but sorely lacks – a “Bill Clinton with impulse control”, or “a church-going Bernie Sanders with better bone density”. So Gary decides to make Jack run for mayor, assembling a team who descend upon Deerlaken to manufacture a down-home Democratic victory. At which point, Gary’s arch rival Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne, flashing hair and teeth) arrives to fight the Republican corner, turning a local election into a bellwether battle that attracts national attention, and national dollars.
Stewart’s first feature, Rosewater, was a solid adaptation of journalist Maziar Bahari’s account of his detention in Iran shortly after appearing on a spoof Daily Show segment in which Jason Jones pretended to be an American “spy”. The situation may have been absurd, but there was nothing funny about Bahari’s ordeal, powerfully portrayed in Stewart’s film. With Irresistible (the name of which seems to nod toward Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui), Stewart is back on home ground, opening with a TV show-style segment about the falsehoods of the “spin room” (“I look forward to lying to you in the future”) that we now take for granted.
What follows is a broad-strokes comedy drama pitched somewhere between the satire of Barry Levinson’s Wag the Dog and the fish-out-of-water charm of Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero. As with the former, the manipulation of “truth” into a saleable product allows for much wise-cracking fun, with number-crunching focus-groups mistaking nuns for contraception-conscious single women, and television adverts funded by “Powerful Progressives for Strength” or “Wisconsinites for Religiously Based Compassionate Empathy”. This is familiar fare, the kind of thing Stewart could do in his sleep – entertaining, if unsurprising.
The connection to Local Hero, however, is rather more subtle. When Gary first arrives in Deerlaken, the responses to his search for universal wifi (“good luck with that!”) echo the muffled laughter that greets Peter Riegert’s Mac when he asks his Ferness hosts if they have a charger so he can plug in his briefcase. Like Mac, Gary thinks he’s gone back in time, and we fondly imagine that a few days on the farm will somehow reset his metropolitan compass. But the gorgeous sting in the tail of Local Hero is that the villagers aren’t what Mac imagines at all – in fact, they have the measure of him long before he begins to understand them. Perhaps Gary should have boned up on his movie history along with all those statistical analyses.
“It’s just math,” Gary ruefully tells Diana (Mackenzie Davis), Jack’s 28-year-old daughter with whom he creepily imagines he has made “a connection”. “We need what they get… plus one.” Whether Irresistible is the movie we “need” in such testing times is open to debate, with some already accusing Stewart of having gone soft. But as a non-partisan response to the craziness of “this system, the way we elect people” (which is indeed “terrifying and exhausting”), it gets my vote.
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