Bruised and battered by the surprise outcome of the national 2016 election, senior campaign consultant Gary Zimmer (Steve Carell) despairs that he can make any Democrat electable and even subsequent shifts in the political landscape do little to make him want to re-enter the fray. But when one of his assistants shows him a youtube video that appears to have gone viral, Zimmer thinks he might be able to turn things around. The video shows Col. Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper) making an impassioned plea on behalf of immigrant workers in his rural Wisconsin community of Deerlaken and being shut down by the local Mayor Braun (Brent Sexton).
But Hasting’s speech couldn’t be more perfect if it had been scripted…noting that if principles aren’t there for difficult times then they’re just hobbies. Zimmer heads to Wisconsin and convinces the veteran soldier-turned-farmer to run for the upcoming mayoral election as a fresh-face but principled Democrat. But the ways of Washington are not those of Deerlaken and it’s clear that Zimmer’s demeanour and tactics will only go so far with the local community. As a rival consultant Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne) arrives to make Braun the better candidate, Zimmer tries every trick in his arsenal to make Hastings a viable choice and convince the gentle townsfolk to vote for change.
But when it matters, are the townsfolk already far more capable than he believes?
For a long time Irresistible simply feels like a decent but strangely safe Dollar General-pitched West Wing, a Wag the Dog fitted with punchy one-line snark that works so well for regular Jon Stewart/John Oliver/Samantha Bee satire and sketches but which feels just a little self-satisfied in a feature-length format. It’s not that it’s not funny or effective – it’s both – but having a smug character being smug ends up having the film run the risk of being… well, smug. The promise of two rival political spinners pitting their wits against each other also isn’t new, but with Carrell’s continual condescension and Byrne’s bring-it-on bitching – each of heir characters apparently learning nothing except how to sharpen their respective knives – it’s a case of obvious caricatures and the audience may wonder where this potential morality tale is going. Yes, don’t worry, among the raft of ‘out-of-comfort-zone’ cliches, there is an epiphany on the horizon – and it’s a decent and stylish one at that – but it takes a while to land that blow, an upper-cut after a string of sucker-punches. That being said, while Irresistible isn’t as smart as it thinks it is, you’ll likely have to concede by the time it’s all done it’s smarter than you thought it was going to be.
Carell and Byrne are fine in and of themselves – doing as much as you’d expect, comfortable in the skins of their characters and clearly having fun with the material, though not pushing any boundaries and really not giving us any deeper characterisation beyond their morally-questionable designated job skills – with Byrne’s Brewster suffering the most in that regard. Chris Cooper plays Hastings as a nicely neutral character, a gentle, weathered soul – determined to do the very best he can for his community but seemingly uncomfortable with the tricks of the political trade and the tactics that Zimmer wants to use at all costs. Mackenzie Davis (Black Mirror, Dark Fate) as Hasting’s savvy daughter Diana has a wry sense of identity about her, refusing to be bulldozed by Zimmer and ultimately showing her smarts. The town is populated by an array of characters who each have their moments. However the likes of Topher Grace, Natasha Lyonne and blink-and-you’ll-miss Debra Messing feel like little more than cameos.
Jon Stewart, still the benchmark of acerbic accountability and the court-jester of culture, is on firm ground here with his second feature. But it’s an array of predictable if well-deserving targets painted on balloons that he pops with familiar aplomb. The jokes and asides work well but don’t surprise, taking shots with equal opportunism at not just politicians and their lackeys but the full range of often vapid media from CNN to Fox News and back again. But while it ultimately makes some salient points about human nature, campaign finance and political expediency, it never goes for the jugular quite as savagely as you want or expect, ending up as a far thinner In the Thick of It.
For better or worse, it’s not fully any of the things you expect it to be: half familiar gentle comedy, half harder political punditry but without quite joining the dots. Yet Irresistible is still well worth seeking out and its observations about the current state of the union are largely on the mark. However it’s a mid-credit real-life interview that Stewart adds in, which probably makes the film’s point more succinctly (if, admittedly, not more entertainingly) than the ninety minutes preceding it.
Irresistible is available on VOD platforms such as Amazon Prime, iTunes, Vudu, Apple TV, Google Play and FandangoNow now…