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'Irresistible' Chooses An Inopportune Moment To Get Glib About Politics

Steve Carell stars as Gary Zimmer in <em>Irresistible</em>.
Daniel McFadden
Focus Features
Steve Carell stars as Gary Zimmer in Irresistible.

Early in Irresistible, a film directed and written by Jon Stewart, we cut from your basic Washington weasel to what is labeled in a caption as "Rural America," and under that, "Heartland, USA." This wry joke suggests that ripping off this meaningless, cynical label slapped on the Wisconsin town we're about to visit will be the film's purpose. Unfortunately, "Rural America: Heartland, USA" is how the movie sees the town, too. The town is generic, the people are generic, the movie is generic, and its politics are generic. Given how broadly unobjectionable it is designed to be, it's a little shocking how transparently it's laboring to be subversive.

Gary (Steve Carell) is a campaign consultant (interestingly, the film's official synopsis calls him a "Democrat campaign consultant") who worked for Hillary Clinton and is reeling from the 2016 election when we first meet him. If you watched Carell on The Office, you largely know who Gary is: Think Michael Scott if he'd made his way into political consulting and used his sales skills over there, and also he didn't have any of the redeeming qualities Michael Scott had.

Gary comes across a viral video of a Wisconsin veteran and farmer named Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper) giving a speech about principle at a town meeting in Rural America, Heartland USA. Enthralled by Hastings and seeing an opportunity, Gary descends on the town and becomes the leader of Jack's campaign for mayor, which he wants to use as a proving ground for a more rural-friendly Democratic party in the wake of losses in several midwestern states in 2016.

Naturally, Jack is a reticent and plain-spoken farmer who resists Gary's big-city, D.C. insider ways, and the film spends a lot of time guffawing at things like Gary telling his staff he wants to be authentic and stripped down for his trip to Wisconsin and needs a regular rental car, not a fancy one — then popping his head back in to ask for a car with Bose speakers in the kind of sequence you can call out from your couch with ease: "He's going to pop back in and say he wants a champagne bath or something!"

Back in Rural America, Heartland USA, Gary and a Republican counterpart of his named Faith (played by Rose Byrne, deserving better as she often does) descend into a caricature of politics in which they're uninterested in the stakes of the mayoral election; they just are interested in winning.

Of course, it's hard to blame them, because there are no stakes in the election. There is no indication at any point that there is any disagreement among people in this town about anything. They are, as we will eventually learn, literally unified on every issue. There are no dissenters, there are no policies at stake; they are simple, ideologically interchangeable residents of Rural America, Heartland USA, who all just want to build schools and help each other.

This has always been Stewart's theory, that if the media and national politicians and campaign finance laws would get out of the way, everyone really is basically the same on the inside. I first heard him articulate it at the Rally to Restore Sanity And/Or Fear on the National Mall in 2010, and it seems that his view of American political life has remained stable for the last 10 years. Which is really an accomplishment, of a sort.

Ironically, while castigating Beltway insiders for not really caring about the town, Stewart is also not interested in any of the local politics of the town and doesn't doesn't even suggest it has any; he's only interested in Gary and Faith's attempted manipulation of these simple good (white) people as a simulacrum of D.C. decay.

What of the fact that local governments actually have enormous influence on issues like zoning, policing, schools, election security, housing, and all manner of regulations? And what of the fact that bitter local battles have been central to issues of race, the safety of LGBTQ people, the economic security of imperiled communities, and the security of the environment? Battles that have played on genuine enmity between neighbors? That stuff, Stewart posits, doesn't matter. We'd all be getting along fine without those Beltway insiders and their artificial divides.

In fairness, it may help the town avoid at least some common conflicts about race that the only Black people you ever see are specifically used in jokes about Black people. One appears in a scene where the joke is that he's not part of a focus-group demographic, he's the one Black guy. Three Black men in Black Lives Matter shirts later walk up to a Republican voter registration table, and the men working the table sloooooowly pull the pens and clipboards back. (Very funny to those in the mood for casual voter suppression humor!) None of these men speak.

Gary has one black co-worker whose job it is to side-eye and mutter at her clueless colleagues (who, led by Debra Messing, hold hands and start chanting "si se puede" in a staff meeting) for a few seconds. And we meet a Black woman at a Washington fundraiser who I think has one line, but she is there as part of what appears to be an interracial lesbian couple wearing paired "Stay Woke" shirts who are trying to urbansplain "farm to table" to Jack the decent and wise Wisconsin farmer. They are part of the mockery of insufferable D.C. liberals, you see.

Perhaps what makes Irresistible so hard to take at this moment is that it has the swagger of a much smarter movie than it is. It purports to investigate what's gone wrong in American politics but focuses its idea of good Americans on an all-white town where everyone agrees about everything and nothing matters. Small towns only matter in this story because they are, as a single bloc, being mistreated and manipulated and blown about by Washington. It is in this story, and not in the world, that only Washington matters.

It's also so utterly toothless as satire, because there's nothing in it that challenges anyone's ideas about anything. Who is going to find this provocative? The people who love Beltway insiders? SuperPAC stans? The thesis of the film is that people in the United States have been convinced that they have legitimate policy divisions by a cynical and manipulative media. We only think we have serious disagreements because the pundits are focused on artificial right-left divide, Stewart lectures through a character's mouth at one point. He probably believes it; there are certainly those who can afford to.

It's worth noting the "It's just comedy! It's not trying to teach anybody anything!" line that has been Jon Stewart's explanation for every flaw in the impassioned civic arguments he's been making since he took over The Daily Show in 1999. But — and you won't believe me when I tell you this — the closing image of Irresistible is someone telling Jon Stewart how he got something exactly right and the two of them having a good laugh about how right he is. People who are just making little comedies don't need to make special featurettes where they're told that they're right.

The funny thing is this: You know who's really going to love this movie? People who go to D.C. political fundraising dinners, who will say, "Ha ha, that's so true, we are like that," and then they will keep doing exactly what they're doing. They'll also lament the fact that Jon Stewart ever left The Daily Show and handed the reins to Trevor Noah, because they really miss Jon (who they call Jon), and they're pretty sure he'd have had a lot to say that's relevant to our current political moment. Unfortunately, if he does, it won't be in this movie.

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Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.