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Non-Review Review: Irresistible

Irresistible is a movie that largely exists to demonstrate that nobody hates the political left like the political left.

Jon Stewart’s second feature as writer and director essentially positions itself as a post-2016 political satire. Stewart’s former correspondent Steve Carell is cast as Democratic campaign manager Gary Zimmer, who is still nursing the wounds of the 2016 election. The film features two short table-setting prologues, the second of which finds Zimmer lying in bed on November 9th, 2016 as the news media plays back his unearned confidence in the face of the earth-shattering Donald Trump victory. There’s a sense in which Zimmer needs to be humbled.

Window into a broken system.

A couple of years later, both Zimmer and the party clearly still smarting from that humiliating defeat, a video comes across Zimmer’s desk. Recorded at a town hall in Deerlaken, Wisonsin, it shows a military veteran standing up for the rights of immigrants and minorities to a town administration desperate to lock them out of welfare. Colonel Jack Hastings appears to be the complete package, a white rural farmer with genuinely progressive politics. “He’s a Democrat,” Zimmer insists. “He just doesn’t know it yet.”

Stewart tries to position Irresistible as a biting social commentary on the state of the modern Democratic party and its awkward relationship with the white rural voters who are undergoing incredible political hardship as a result of a series of global recessions, and who feel increasingly disconnected from the political establishment. It’s an old theme that belongs to a rich cinematic tradition including films like Mister Smith Goes to Washington, and it should still resonate these days.

Making Hastings while the sun shines.

Unfortunately, Stewart’s satire is unfocused and tonally unbalanced. It’s never clear exactly what the film is saying, beyond expressing an understandable frustration with the establishment of the political left. However, the film’s anger is clearest when it is singularly focused as to imply a vacuum that simply doesn’t exist. More than that, Stewart occasionally seems to invest in the some sort of nostalgic and romantic fetishisation of the rural community that he so scathing ridicules in the political establishment.

This issue reflects a broader problem with the movie. Irresistible is tonally erratic at the best of times, alternating between a biting satire set in a world that is at least meant to be recognisable and a more cartoonish comedy populated by outlandish science-fiction elements. Stewart can’t seem to hone in on what Irresistible is trying to say about the political system, beyond the simple fact that political types are the absolute worst.

Dems the breaks.

A lot of the broad commentary in Irresistible is old hat. The movie opens with an introductory sequence that seems to imagine what would happen if political operatives like Gary Zimmer and his Republican counterpart Faith Brewster actually said what they were transparently thinking to reporters, and the result is surprisingly inane. “We call this the spin room – without shame,” Zimmer tells the assembled reporters, before going on to define what he means by “spin” and the implicit disorientation and distortion.

Irresistible often feels like a collection of talking points that have been continually rehashed, particularly in political discourse in the wake of the 2016 election – an event that Stewart chooses to illustrate by depicting a man getting hit in the stomach with a cannon ball. Brewster is transparently a surface level parody of the sorts of right-wing talking heads who sell the Republican party line in mainstream media, an archetype perhaps most directly embodied by Kelly-Ann Conway.

“Twenty bucks says I do better with fear than you do with shame,” Brewster goads Zimmer at one point during the film, effectively a broad cartoon of both establishment positions in appealing to the electorate and about as nuanced a level of commentary as Irresistible manages. Indeed, the central point of Irresistible is largely to suggest that Zimmer is pretty much as bad as Brewster, he just hides it with a little more skill. He is just as cynical, condescending, and as prone to treat politics as an end of itself.

In focusing its criticism around Zimmer, Irresistible feels like it belongs to a school of political criticism of what have been termed “identity politics”, and how those politics have influenced the Democratic Party. It’s a fashionable argument, with many of the older and more nostalgic establishment insisting that the future of politics lies with the centre – a detail that glosses over the simple math that any absurdly large leap to the political right pushes the centre itself at least half as far.

Split screen.

A lot of the jokes in Irresistible feel overly familiar. The film’s second prologue opens with a slow pan across Zimmer’s book shelves, which are decorated with a photo of Gandhi and books by W.E.B. DuBois and Gloria Steinem. The camera mockingly pans along the catering at a fundraiser, over food marked “Halal”, “Paleo” and “Kosher.” Debra Messing has a small role as Babs Garnett, the white woman who must sign off on Zimmer’s plan to back Hastings, but who speaks over the minority members of the coalition to complain about efforts to reach white rural voters.

There is something very cynical in all of this. Notably, Stewart seems to exoticise rural America just as much as Zimmer and his associates. The titlecard for the first visit to the town of Deerlaken reads “Rural America, Heartland, USA.” In this strange land, Rhinestone Cowboy seems to play on the radio in an infinite loop. When Zimmer arrives at a bar and hotel, he’s directed to pick a room upstairs. “They’re all unlocked,” he’s told. The hotel doesn’t have wifi. The walls are so thin that conversations can be held through walls and floors.

Being charitable, Stewart is perhaps making the audience complicit in Zimmer’s dismissive and patronising attitude towards the inhabitants of Deerlaken. Irresistible never seems entirely sure whether Zimmer is supposed to be an audience identification character in this adventure, or an object of curiousity – whether the audience is expected to laugh with him or at him. The film actively works to conceal the motivations and characterisation of the townsfolk, rendering them inscrutable for large portions of the runtime, an approach that plays into that fetishisation.

(There is something just a little uncomfortable in how so many of the non-white characters in Irresistible exist largely as props to reassure the audience and the white characters that it is perfectly fine to focus attention primarily on white Americans. It’s the African American member of Garnett’s coalition who argues for the outreach to Deerlaken, and Hastings catches Zimmer’s attention by arguing firmly in favour of disadvantaged minorities in a public townhall. However, the film itself is largely oblivious to these perspectives.)

Taking his licks.

There are a handful of jokes that do land, even if they feel like they’ve been made better in other political comedies. When Zimmer hires a polling firm to boost Hastings’ numbers, the data inevitably goes awry. A “concentrated grouping of single women” that appears to be a viable target for contraception-related publicity turns out to be convent, which produces its own problems. Later, Diana Hastings critiques Zimmer’s plan to smear dirt on her father’s opponent. “So when they go low, we go higher incrementally in relation to how low they went?” she clarifies.

Irresistible struggles a great deal with tone. It occasionally veers towards the cartoonish. For a practiced political operative, Zimmer seems to have no control of his inner monologue, making sarcastic quips about Deerlaken residents while in earshot. In response to his pleasantries, he repeatedly gasps, “what the f&%k?” On leaving Hastings’ house, he wonders aloud, “why does he need three guns?” On discovering how tasty the local bakery is, Zimmer transforms into a ravenous cartoon.

This seriously undercuts any attempt at earnestness or sincerity. At one point, Zimmer drags Hastings to a fundraiser with the Democratic establishment, which plays as an earnest critique of the state of contemporary politics that require communities like Deerlaken to justify their existence to coastal elites. However, it’s juxtaposed with a later meeting between Hastings and donor Elton Chambers, a major contributor who is fixated on Israel and who has been turned into a cyborg by “a series of micro-strokes.”

Irresistible veers radically and dramatically between its tonal extremes. This is particularly obvious towards the end of the film, which hinges on a fairly dramatic reversal that is incredibly cynical. It is one of the most barbed and pointed moments in the film, the point at which the film’s scathing contempt for the entire process becomes clearest. However, it is immediately followed by an earnest speech from a supporting character who sincerely complains that the current status quo is “driving us insane.” It’s a wholesome moment, but one at odds with the film around it.

Trouble is Brewstering.

This captures the fundamental problem with Irresistible in a nutshell. The film cannot decide whether it wants to be scathingly nihilistic in its condemnation of the “election economy”, or whether it genuinely and earnestly believes that people can do better. Irresistible knows that it hates people like Zimmer or Brewster, but is ambiguous in its attitude towards the inhabitants of Deerlaken, treating them more as a cudgel to make a point than as characters with their own agency.

Irresistible is an uneven tonal mess. Its most cohesive points have been debated and argued for just under half-a-decade. Irresistible occasionally seems to be reaching for a bolder or more ambitious point, but struggles to articulate itself clearly. It knows that money is bad and that politics are stupid, which is pretty much the basis of the politic comedy as a genre, but reaches towards an unearned earnestness that never actually grapples with the substance of its own observations

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