Politics is broken.

It’s the thesis statement that lies under the surface of former Daily Show host turned filmmaker Jon Stewart’s latest feature and one that evokes a gentler version of the outrage he displayed in a viral moment on CNN’s Crossfire in 2004, raking pundits Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala over the coals for hyper-partisanship ruining American democracy in his opinion.

Written in the aftermath of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the dramatic satire Irresistible finds Stewart opining against the relentless combativeness of two-party partisan politics and influence of money over the democratic process.

To make his point, Stewart sets a pair of high-dollar strategists – Democrat hype man Greg Zimmer played by Steve Carell and Republican spin specialist Faith Brewster played by Rose Byrne – on a small, rural town in Wisconsin. Backing different candidates in a mayoral race, the film devolves into a political arms race to outspend the opponent and win by any cost.

As both screenwriter and director, Stewart places his voice silently at the center of the frame, making careful observers keenly aware of the issues he takes with political campaigns. This is especially true in a second viewing of Irresistible, where the curtains are completely drawn back and audiences can see the wizard hiding in the corner.

To the extent that it makes Stewart’s argument, Irresistible works in large part due to the talented ensemble cast led by Stewart’s former Daily Show colleague and Oscar-nominated actor Carell as Gary, a DC insider who orders “a Bud and a burger” every night for dinner at the local tavern because it’s what he believes people from Wisconsin would order and not what he actually wants.

There are flashes of idealism in Carell’s performance as Gary has moments of genuine, heartfelt desire to see his candidate win the mayoral race in the hopes of bringing a divided America together, but this is often outweighed by a dogged pursuit of a win at any cost. Carell’s excitability in the performance is moderate, yet significant like a dog feeling compelled to chase a car on instinct alone.

Byrne, on the other hand, gives Faith a very knowing charm as a no-hesitation political assassin willing to do whatever it takes to gain the upper hand in the political process. It’s clear Stewart finds fault in both sides of the aisle but expresses clear disdain for underhanded tactics from conservatives more so than from liberals in Byrne’s decidedly villainous performance.

Veteran character actor Chris Cooper gets more screen time here than he probably has in much of the last seven or eight years, leaving an immeasurable mark on the film with a subtle humility and earnestness as Jack, a retire Marine colonel who Gary recruits to run as the Democratic challenger to a popular Republican mayor.

The townspeople have a basic, almost nondescript mannerism that Irresistible essentially floats over them which plays into the notion that politicians and their consultants don’t actually listen to their constituents.

As much as Irresistible could become a Republican hit piece, Stewart’s screenplay uses both sides to show the flaws in national politics in a small, digestible scale. The writing is exceptionally biting, but not every point lands cleanly as Stewart’s direction doesn’t match the level of the dialogue.

Irresistible needed a more seasoned hand behind the director’s chair to navigate the tricky balance between satire and drama, like Barry Levinson was able to do with David Mamet’s screenplay for the similar Wag The Dog from 1997. 

There are weird tonal shifts in the direction, where Stewart will repeat parts of a scene for comedic effect and then follow a character’s back through another scene. The lack of directorial style feels more like Stewart watched a movie the day before shooting each particular sequence and tried to emulate whatever directorial style he watched rather than developing his own.

A moderate success that could have been strikingly biting in its critique, Irresistible drags on a little more than a film with a 100-minute running time probably should. Now available for home rental at a reasonable price, Stewart’s second feature could be worth the time for viewers tired of hyper-partisan politics.

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