IRRESISTIBLE: Jon Stewart’s Election Satire Feels Far Too Safe

What do we want from satire in 2020? That’s the question I kept posing to myself and one that’s continued to stump me in the days since watching Jon Stewart’s latest picture, Irresistible. The former host of The Daily Show has long been seen as a beacon of reason, someone with a knack for putting his finger on issues at the center of our political and media landscape, while also ferociously calling B.S. wherever it might be found.

It’s a skill Stewart continues to maintain as a cultural figure, further demonstrated by a recent run of press appearances that managed to fall as our nation restless with broader ideological questions, and an election looms right over the horizon. “The enemy is noise, the goal is clarity,” Stewart exclaimed in a recent New York Times interview. As someone always enveloped in news media, it’s an inspiring statement. But, it’s also one that seems to be at the center of his most recent picture, one which attempts to wage war against the mania of our modern-day electoral process.

“The enemy is noise, the goal is clarity”

This, of course, isn’t Stewart’s first oral into directing. In 2014, he made the drama Rosewater, about BBC journalist Maziar Bahari’s imprisonment and interrogation in Iran back in 2009. However, Irresistible marks somewhat of a return for Stewart to the realm of political satire since bowing down as host of The Daily Show in 2015. The political climate and the mood of the country feel decidedly different, though. Dialogue, both culturally and politically, is more divided, more angered. There’s a perceived failure in our institutions and loss of Obama-era optimism, that may have been naive to believe in the first place.

IRRESISTIBLE: Jon Stewart's Election Satire Feels Far Too Safe
source: Focus Features

Yet, it’s that division which Irresistible opens on, as a Democratic political consultant, played by fellow Daily Show alum Steve Carrell, searches for a comeback, a chance at redemption following the 2016 presidential election. His ticket of opportunity comes in the form of a retired Marine colonel (Chris Cooper) living in a small town out in rural Wisconsin. With the right campaign, he may have what it takes to be the first Democratic mayor in his area.

Cooper’s character, after all, is a kind of golden goose for the party, someone who sounds like a progressive with his outspoken support for immigrant communities but with a salt of the earth image that can appeal to rural voters. But soon the tiny local election becomes a national media-circus, as D.C. insiders and a Republican opposition team lead by Rose Byrne descend upon the town. Residents become statistics to be analyzed or demographics to be over-won.

Systemic Failure

What’s curious is Stewart’s ultimate disinterest in ideological jabs. While Carrell and Byrne’s characters are written to poke at members of both sides, he’s out of touch; she plays dirty, what Stewart really has his eyes on is a systemic failure. Any talk of policy ultimately takes a back seat to a rat race between two political groups whose motivation seems to be nothing more than victory over the other party. For Stewart, the issue is clear; there’s too much money in politics. But as righteous as the message may seem, it never feels revolutionary on screen.

IRRESISTIBLE: Jon Stewart's Election Satire Feels Too Safe
source: Focus Features

As unfair or cruel as it may be to place Irresistible against great satires of film history like Network, A Face in the Crowd, or Dr. Strangelove, it feels notable to think of how much style and zaniness those movies have. They excel by their excess. They aren’t merely commenting on the moment so much as taking issues of the day to their most extreme conclusion and acting as a dark crystal ball for the future ahead.

Irresistible, on the other hand, feels tied to the earnestness of Frank Capra, most notably, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. It wants to be a rallying cry for progress, a story of ideals triumphing over systemic corruption, but they’re still feels something missing. When Stewart flips the script on his D.C. pundits in the movie’s final act, giving power directly to the people, it falls flat. There’s merely explanation rather than emotion; it’s just a lesson for us to take away. Capra’s film may be a tad too sentimental by today’s standards. Still, he at least gave audiences a moment of catharsis in Jimmy Stewart’s sweaty and exhausted filibuster, but Irresistible has nothing of that magnitude.

IRRESISTIBLE: Jon Stewart's Election Satire Feels Too Safe
source: Focus Features

The Problem

The problem is there’s no rage, no urgency, no sense of absurdity. Instead, the movie feels like a political bumper sticker, vaguely arguing we need to “clean up Washington”. Haven’t we known this? Or do we just live in a more cynical world? The whole time I was watching, I couldn’t stop thinking of Adam McKay’s Vice, a movie that similarly tried to explain our political moment but from the opposite end of the filmmaking spectrum.

That movie was ultimately all hot air and rage, but nowhere to put it. Its ambitions and messiness eventually backfire, barring down on the audience like scattered ramblings or self-righteous preachiness. But even though the movie doesn’t quite work, there’s something to be said for its anger and willingness to piss everyone off.

Irresistible seems too afraid of being part of the noise to pull those kinds of punches, and that costs the film some urgency. By the end, the movie’s taken the shape of a multitude of other campaign pictures, where those running the show ultimately realize they’ve become too caught up in the sport of it all and lost track of what the needs of the people are. That kind of cliched storytelling makes the movie repellent; whatever conversation Stewart wants to spark becomes immediately soured by bland filmmaking.

And it’s a shame to admit that. Stewart is a smart and nuanced satirist as a comedian, but as a filmmaker, he seems out of his element, a musician struggling to find his groove.

Is there a political satire that you feel speaks to the moment? What’s the strongest piece of satire of the last, say, five years?

Watch Irresistible

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