As I was enjoying Jon Stewart’s light political satire “Irresistible,” I was reminded of a Kevin Costner movie from a dozen years ago with a similar setup and tone. What the heck was the name of that movie about the guy with the swing vote?
Oh right. “Swing Vote.”
Costner played the apolitical Bud Johnson, a single father in the small town of Texico, New Mexico, whose vote will carry his state and thus determine the presidential election. The candidates and their campaign managers swoop into Texico and Bud becomes a media sensation as he wrestles with his decision.
In “Irresistible,” Chris Cooper plays the apolitical Col. Jack Hastings, a single father in the small town of Deerlaken, Wisconsin, whose town hall speech goes viral, prompting a national political operative to persuade Jack to run for mayor. Like “Swing Vote,” this is a relatively gentle indictment of the cynical, money-driven political system, bolstered by winning performances from the ensemble cast. The insightful screenplay by Stewart takes Hollywood’s tendency to condescend to small-town America and turns it upside down in clever fashion.
The granite-faced, quietly commanding Cooper is perfectly cast as the retired Marine who gets up every morning before dawn to do chores on his farm, is a loving father to his wonderful daughter Diana (Mackenzie Davis), listens to Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy” in his pickup truck and has zero interest in local politics — until he attends a meeting where the town council is about to approve an ordinance cutting off any type of financial aid or employment to illegal immigrants. Jack gives a halting but heartfelt speech about how it would be un-American to turn their backs on the hundreds of good, hardworking, family people who have been an integral part of the community for years. The whole thing is caught on a shaky cell phone video that goes viral. Here’s the kind of conservative guy you’d expect would be wearing a MAGA hat — and he’s delivering a rousing, liberal message! Crazy.
Cut to Washington, D.C., where the Democratic National Committee’s top strategist, one Gary Zimmer (Steve Carell), has been humiliated by a devastating election loss and is looking to revive his career. A low-level staffer shows him the video of Jack, and light bulb moment! Gary will trek to Deerlaken, befriend the local yokels and convince Jack to run for mayor against the entrenched conservative. The media will lap it up, Deerlaken will become a microcosm of the battle for America’s political soul — and Gary will become a hot commodity again.
“[Jack] is like Bill Clinton with better impulse control,” says Gary. “Like a churchgoing Bernie Sanders with better bone density!”
Carell gives a finely honed performance as Gary, who believes he can roll into town in his slacks and expensive sweaters, order a burger and a beer at the local tap and easily win over and manipulate these hicks. He’s definitely the most sophisticated and polished person in the room — but he’s not necessarily the smartest person in the room. Time and again, he underestimates Jack and Diana, as well as a number of their neighbors.
After Jack reluctantly agrees to run for mayor, the national media indeed does shine a spotlight on Deerlaken, and the madness escalates when Gary’s nemesis, the cunning GOP operative Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne), swoops in to marshal the mayor’s campaign. All of a sudden, various PACs are spending millions on a small-town mayoral race that now features scathing attack ads, e.g., a spot painting Jack as angry and unstable that concludes with, “Paid for by traditional Wisconsin families for faith and freedom.”
Writer-director Stewart is an equal opportunist satirist, getting in some choice jabs at both political parties. In one of the movie’s best scenes, Gary and Jack attend a private fundraiser in a lavishly appointed home on the Upper West Side, where a roomful of elite wealthy liberals marvel at Jack like he’s a museum piece. “Authentic, I get it,” says one potential donor. (When Jack is asked if he’s a farm-to-table guy, he shrugs and says, “It all goes from farms to tables of some kind.”) Stewart also pokes fun at the media and our tendency to go nuts over the Story of the Year before moving on a week later to the next Story of the Year. At one point we see a CNN segment featuring a DOZEN talking heads in little boxes who all talk at the same time.
Obviously, Stewart knows this territory well, having spent 16 years presiding over “The Daily Show” and racking up enough Emmys to fill a room. “Irresistible” doesn’t have the sharp bite of a “Wag the Dog” or a “Bulworth,” but it’s a timely and entertaining satire with one of the most likable casts of the year.