In comedy film circles, there’s a popular phrase bandied about: “Hollywood couldn’t make ‘Blazing Saddles’ today.” Nine times out of ten, the speaker is talking about political correctness. But Jon Stewart’s “Irresistible” forces the hand of the one out of ten to say: Hollywood couldn’t make “Blazing Saddles” today because nobody understands satire. In “Blazing Saddles,” Gene Wilder’s character Jim speaks the famous line, “You’ve got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the New West. You know … morons.” Jon Stewart tries to stretch that line into an hour and half-long “The Daily Show” bit and misses the target several times.
“Irresistible” follows Gary Zimmer (“The Daily Show” alumnus Steve Carell), a Democratic political strategist who is nursing his wounds following Hillary Clinton’s failed 2016 presidential bid. An opportunity falls into Gary’s lap, or rather his laptop, by way of a viral YouTube video of Marine Corps veteran and farmer Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper). Jack catches Gary’s eye with an impassioned plea at a town hall that skewers his small town’s xenophobia and calls for politics’ return to common decency. Gary flies from Washington, D.C. on a private jet to the tiny rural town of Deerlaken, Wisconsin to back Jack’s run for mayor as a Democratic candidate. Gary hopes that Jack’s candidacy will erode the Democratic Party’s image as being full of ivory-tower coastal elites, such as, well, himself. When Gary’s rival, Republican strategist Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne), throws her weight behind the incumbent Republican Mayor Braun (Brent Sexton), chaos ensues as the enormous American political machine descends upon a tiny town of 5,000 people that is not equipped to handle it.
The jokes of “Irresistible” are subtle but full of bite, which may be disappointing for viewers that were hoping for a “Michael Scott does politics” type of farce that was promised in the trailers. (I am pleased to announce, however, that unlike many comedy movie trailers, the best jokes are in the movie itself.) The movie updates “urban fish out of water” tropes beloved in comedies such as “Doc Hollywood,” “My Cousin Vinny,” and “City Slickers” for 2020. When Gary checks into his Deerlaken hotel, he asks the manager for a wifi password. “Good luck,” the manager chuckles. After a beat, Gary meekly asks, “Is that case sensitive?” In another instance, Gary is eating haricots verts on his private jet while Jack sits across from him, looking like he’d rather be anywhere else. “Have you ever had these?” Gary asks Jack. Jack repeats his question back to him, incredulous: “Have I ever had green beans?”
That said, most of the other jokes in the movie require a New York Times subscription. For Stewart fans who have been curious what he’s been up to for the past five years since he retired from “The Daily Show” in 2015, he’s been paying attention—and he hopes the viewers of “Irresistible” have been, too. Gary and Faith’s hate-fueled sexual tension lampoons Kellyanne and George Conway’s bipartisan but antagonistic marriage. The entire premise of the movie satirizes the 2017 Georgia runoff election between Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel, where both the national Democratic and Republican parties turned their attention, and money, to the “small” election happening in Georgia as indicative of larger American political trends. (Full disclosure: I am from rural Georgia, and while I appreciate that the movie doesn’t depict the people of Deerlaken as simple, the fact that Stewart seems to think Georgia and Wisconsin are interchangeable makes him seem as out-of-touch as the very media personalities he’s trying to lambast. Not helping matters is the fact that, ironically, many scenes in “Irresistible” were filmed in Georgia.)
Stewart hosted “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central for sixteen years, skewering the American political machine every evening on Monday-Thursday. When he retired from “The Daily Show” right before the contentious 2016 election, many comedy fans saw the move as if Batman abandoned Gotham in its time of need. When Stewart did return to entertainment, it was as the writer and director of the drama film “Rosewater,” based on the true story of the Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari, who was captured in Iran and tortured under suspicion that he was an American spy, due to an interview he did on “The Daily Show.”
If “Rosewater” is exploring Stewart’s culpability as an American political comedy personality, “Irresistible” is him attempting to wash his hands clean of his former career. CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC are equally, and hilariously, parodied, but political late-night shows such as “The Daily Show” are curiously absent. Jon Stewart fought hard to be taken seriously as a political voice outside of comedy, notably in a 2004 segment of “Crossfire” and fifteen years later testifying before Congress to secure healthcare for 9/11 veterans, but the thesis of “Irresistible” is, “This would have happened anyway without my influence.” Technically he’s correct: the 2017 Georgia runoff election happened after his time at “The Daily Show.” That would have been an interesting and palatable position to take, if Stewart didn’t veer into on-the-nose preachiness at the beginning and end of “Irresistible.” Stewart successfully makes the case that the two main American political parties are two different sides of the same dirty, fake coin, but then he essentially calls the viewer a sheep for holding the coin. To go back to an earlier metaphor, Batman doesn’t lecture Gotham on its crime rates while he’s in retirement. To go back to an even earlier metaphor, “Blazing Saddles” doesn’t satirize 1970’s race relations and then implore the viewer to fix them.
Good satire pokes fun at institutions, making them look so goofy that no one would want to participate in them. Mel Brooks understands this, and often uses parody as a vehicle to satirize: “The Producers” parodies 1950’s big-budget musicals but satirizes the bloated Broadway machine; “Spaceballs” parodies science fiction movies but satirizes the rampant consumerism that followed the first “Star Wars” movie; and “Blazing Saddles” parodies Westerns while satirizing white anxiety about integration. “The Daily Show” alumnus Stephen Colbert understands this as well: many found his conservative blowhard pundit character indistinguishable from the real thing. To bring it full circle, in “Irresistible,” Jon Stewart tries to make 2020’s “Blazing Saddles” but, though he makes American politics look goofy, his hard left turn into cynical moralizing reminds us we have no choice but to participate in this institution. “Irresistible” is ultimately as tedious as watching the thesis of a film/political science double major, though you will feel smart for getting the jokes.