'Irresistible': Film Review

Good to have you back, Jon Stewart.

Steve Carell and Rose Byrne play campaign strategists on opposing sides of a small-town heartland mayoral race that assumes outsize importance in Jon Stewart's political satire.

Given the alarmingly high stakes of this presidential election year, Jon Stewart's snappy political satire, Irresistible, might be the perfect antidote to the anxiety choking the air like thunderclouds. Or could it be one reminder too many that we're at the mercy of a system incontrovertibly corrupted by money? All bets are off. Taken on its own terms, however, this buoyantly funny comedy offers lip-smacking entertainment that will surprise many with its skewering of both sides. Not to mention the news media that devours the Red vs. Blue war with an insatiable appetite.

In his second feature as writer-director following his solidly earnest 2014 debut Rosewater, Stewart is in territory that seems a natural extension of his long tenure deconstructing the political landscape with needling precision on The Daily Show. His new movie is a collision of Frank Capra and Armando Iannucci, with a terrific ensemble led by Stewart's old Comedy Central comrade Steve Carell in a role that fits his duality of ingratiating and prickly sides to a T.

In the opening credits Stewart gets in an amusing wink about the numbing cycle of a political apparatus in permanent election mode as Bob Seger sings "Still the Same" over a series of candid presidential campaign shots in folksy settings, stretching back six decades to Kennedy and Johnson. Photoshopped into the most recent of them are top Democrat consultant Gary Zimmer (Carell) alongside Hillary Clinton contemplating cheesecake slices, and Gary's Republican counterpart Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne) chatting with Sarah Palin while Donald Trump noshes at a diner.

The morning after the 2016 election is shown as a humiliating hangover for Gary, but he perks up some months later when he sees a viral video labeled "Hero Marine Stands Up for Immigrants." It shows a retired colonel, Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper), taking on a council meeting in the fictitious rural Wisconsin town of Deerlaken. His beef is with proposed local legislation that would curtail the rights of the undocumented workers who have made significant contributions to the community.

A widowed dairy farmer, Jack hits all the magic touchpoints of God, nation, hard work and sacrifice that make him the ideal figure to shift one of the reddest counties in what's now a Rust Belt swing state. So Gary sets out to persuade Jack first that he's a Democrat, and second, that he should run in the upcoming mayoral race against popular Republican incumbent Mayor Braun (Brent Sexton).

Stewart milks low-key fish-out-of-water laughs from Gary's early brushes with the regulars at the Hofbrauhaus where he takes a room and the bakery where he picks up coffee and pastries, only mildly unsettled that everybody already knows his name. Carell walks a savvy line between Gary's ingrained citified privilege and the political necessity of projecting a regular-guy vibe — not very convincingly. His first taste of fresh streusel is hilarious.

The sketching of the heartland environment by cinematographer Bobby Bukowski and production designer Grace Yun is first-rate, with faded storefronts along a Main Street largely shuttered since the population dropped from 15,000 to 5,000 overnight with the closing of the local military base. Jack's farm is a more bucolic picture, first seen as taciturn Jack enlists Gary's help on his morning round of chores.

The character-building and interplay between the two actors in these early scenes are a delight. Cooper fully inhabits Jack's no-fuss integrity, his plain-spoken civility and purposeful gait while Carell hops along behind him like a manic rabbit, breathlessly blurting out his calculated political spiel. That doesn't wash with Jack, but Gary makes an appeal to his humanity to "strengthen the weak links." Gary also gets his first glimpse of Jack's 28-year-old daughter Diana (Mackenzie Davis) while she's elbow-deep in a cow.

The conflict ignites when Diana and the group of volunteers working on Jack's underdog campaign — his first slogan is "Jack Hastings: A Redder Kind of Blue" — report that their opponent is suddenly spending serious money. Gary sets up a website to canvass donations for his candidate, which serves as bait to lure Faith; she turns up ready to crush him and secure a win for Mayor Braun. "I do better with fear than you do with shame," she warns him, pretty much summing up the two-party dynamic that put Trump in office.

Sporting platinum-blond Ivanka/Kellyanne/Kayleigh hair and a series of contoured power outfits, Byrne is at her wicked best here, flashing killer instincts beneath her sweetly smiling poise. The adversarial flirtatiousness of Gary and Faith's banter makes them like a profane Hepburn and Tracy, and the two actors bring zesty relish to their comic chemistry and sexual tension. Stewart and Carell play a cunning game by dropping subtle hints of Gary's attraction to both Diana and Faith, thereby also suggesting his dichotomy between man of principle and smug cynic, greasing the wheels of a machine with no connection to serving the voters' interests.

As money pours into both campaigns and national interest is piqued, Stewart scores clever points about the bloated charade of political campaigns and super PAC shenanigans, nowhere more so than in the increasingly ludicrous — yet sadly not implausible — TV spots run by both sides. The type-casting of candidates is humorously summed up in the shorthand Gary uses to describe Jack: "He's Bill Clinton with impulse control... Bernie Sanders with better bone density" is typical of a script peppered with zingy one-liners.

The film gets in digs at the political news media — some smart, some not so subtle — notably in an end credits post-mortem conducted by former CNN chief political correspondent Candy Crowley, one of a handful of journalists playing themselves. There's also a droll cameo from Debra Messing early on as a DNC official blithely patronizing "our special-interest groups."

Some of the supporting characters on the political side could have been more developed, like pollster Kurt (Topher Grace) and analytics expert Tina (Natasha Lyonne). Both seem like thinner versions of the kind of players we saw with more dimension and funnier kinks on Veep. And a single-scene gag with Bill Irwin feels cheap and should have been cut. But these figures do contribute to the static electricity buzzing around a candidate who by contrast exhibits detached calm and wry bemusement. A scene in which Gary flies Jack to New York to court donors is especially sharp. Cooper is an actor without a dishonest bone in his body, and he brings dignity to his character's discomfort as Jack quickly realizes he doesn't speak the same language as the well-heeled Upper West Side Manhattanites. Even if unwittingly he perhaps does.

The obscene stench of money as the propellant in politics is Stewart's key theme, encapsulated when one character near the end says, "It's terrifying and exhausting, and I think it's driving us all insane." His point about the energy that goes into financing elections and all the parasitic organisms that feed off them when much of the country is gasping for economic oxygen is made with a sardonic swipe that remains light, never sanctimonious.

At times Stewart seems to be skirting deliberately close to condescension in capturing the quaint, old-fashioned ways of the Deerlaken locals, with their friendly manner and aversion to coarse language. But there's affection in the understated characterizations of Will Sasso and Will McLaughlin as bar regulars known as Big Mike and Little Mike, respectively; C.J. Wilson as the Hofbrauhaus manager; and Blair Sams as the relentlessly chipper bakery owner.

The biggest clue to the satisfying trick Stewart has up his sleeve, however, is the quiet grace and self-possessed intelligence of Diana, drawn in a lovely performance from Halt and Catch Fire's Davis that represents a more rewarding use of her talents than the routine franchise entry, Terminator: Dark Fate. Irresistible drives home the lesson that many politicians have learned the hard way — never underestimate the heartland.

Production companies: Plan B, Busboy
Distributor: Focus Features (VOD)
Cast: Steve Carell, Rose Byrne, Chris Cooper, Mackenzie Davis, Topher Grace, Natasha Lyonne, Will Sasso, Brent Sexton, C.J. Wilson, Eve Gordon, Bill Irwin, Will McLaughlin, Blair Sams, Alan Aisenberg
Director-screenwriter: Jon Stewart
Producers: Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Jon Stewart, Lila Yacoub
Executive producers: Brad Pitt, Christina Oh
Director of photography: Bobby Bukowski
Production designer: Grace Yun
Costume designer: Alex Bovaird
Music: Bryce Dessner
Editors: Jay Rabinowitz, Mike Selemon
Casting: Meredith Tucker

Rated R, 102 minutes