Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
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I’ll turn to political satire, however, and see what Jon Stewart has been up to.
Let’s look at some of the good things in Jon Stewart’s Irresistible and see how sharp they are. There’s a running gag about how a political campaign must keep separate from a super PAC, which involves relegating the PAC-runners to a particular corner of the candidate’s office, which everybody pretends is a completely different zone and thus entirely legal. There’s a Fox News report in which a Democratic (sorry, Democrat) candidate is pictured next to footage of an Al Qaeda training session. And there are the quiet looks exchanged by locals when big-city campaign manager Gary Zimmer (Steve Carell) tries to ingratiate himself in a small-town tavern by ordering a burger and a Bud, it never occurring to him that the place actually serves good beer.
In that latter scene, we notice that somebody has to run out to get a sixer of Budweiser to complete Zimmer’s order, a nice touch. And we return to the joke a couple of times during the film, maybe the nearest indication of the kind of humor—let’s look in the direction of Bill Forsyth and Local Hero—that Stewart sometimes aims for with this political satire. If Stewart (who scripted as well as directed) could only sustain that mode of humor, we might really have something here. As it is, Irresistible is only spottily on-target, and too much of its running time goes toward political observations that have long ago become commonplace, the tame Tracy-Hepburn battles between Zimmer and a rival consultant (Rose Byrne), and the genital humor that became so bafflingly prevalent on the last years of Stewart’s Daily Show run.
Zimmer is in small-town Wisconsin to boost the chances of a unicorn: a plain-talkin’ military vet and farmer who happens to be progressive. Chris Cooper is the casting here, a little-too-obvious obvious choice despite the actor’s professionalism. Zimmer thinks the mayoral race would be a good way to build a Democratic coalition in the Midwest, and thus he steers some big bucks in the direction of the contest. Mackenzie Davis plays Cooper’s daughter, and the way Stewart plays with our expectations about the possibility of an age-inappropriate dalliance between her and Zimmer is one of the film’s most interesting games.
Overall, though, this movie feels past its time. Stewart mocks the political machine, the media, and the high-rollers back in New York who donate to the cause. (He doesn’t much satirize the local population, preferring to generally ennoble them as smarter than the city slickers; by contrast, the townsfolk in Local Hero were eager to sell out for big bucks.) And maybe four years ago those were worthy targets; I mean, they still are, of course, and I laughed when Stewart shows Zimmer on a private plane jetting to Wisconsin, his laptop open to the Wikipedia page on Wisconsin, his monitor showing an NFL Films documentary about the history of the Green Bay Packers. But the political landscape has tilted, and the world calls for a different kind of satire—as though anything could keep up with reality, of course. This is a smart, righteous movie, being released in a moment when something else is called for. Whatever its faults, the great thing about The Daily Show (which the likes of Stephen Colbert and Seth Myers and Trevor Noah are still doing now) is the way it could take an event that happened a few hours ago and render something slashing out of it. Movies take so long to make that Stewart feels behind here; and lacking the deeper dimension of something like The Manchurian Candidate, the film feels insufficient.
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.