A thing not many people know about me is that, over the years, I’ve spent a good deal of time working on political campaigns. And I don’t mean sitting behind a desk and coming up with a policy platform—I mean block walking, phone banking, leafleting, going to potlucks, and all the other sorts of grassroots stuff that doesn’t make for very exciting television. Frankly, I do it because I like it: there’s a very distinctive sort of energy to campaign work, a sort of scrappy seat-of-the-pants dynamism that feels rather like racing down a steep hill in a vehicle cobbled together out of milk crates and tin cans.
It should be unsurprising, then, that I’ve seen a good number of political campaign comedies over the years. And I’m happy to report that this summer’s “Irresistible”—written and directed by Jon Stewart, now streaming on Amazon Prime following a direct-to-video release—is probably the best of the bunch.
Gary Zimmer (Steve Carell) is an elite Democratic political consultant who harbors a longstanding rivalry with Republican strategist Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne, in full Fox News-blonde glory). Following the upset of the 2016 election, Zimmer finds himself at a loss. But he soon stumbles across a viral YouTube video of small-town farmer and veteran Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper) passionately denouncing a proposed voter-ID law at a town council meeting, drawing on both American compassion and Christian values to support his critique. For Zimmer, this is catnip—a chance to find the new face of the Democratic Party, someone who can speak to rural America and help the Dems recapture the white working class. So off Zimmer goes to the tiny Wisconsin town of Deerlaken, determined to conscript Hastings to run for mayor as a Democrat. (Naturally, Faith and the Republican apparatus soon show up, dumping millions of Super PAC dollars into the incumbent mayor’s campaign in an attempt to deprive Zimmer of his new star.)
The mainstream critics haven’t been especially kind to “Irresistible” thus far, and I think this is in part because the film explicitly presents itself as, at bottom, a protest against the influence of big money in politics. If that’s all we’re meant to take away from the movie, then I agree it’s average at best.
But if that’s where the movie’s messaging stops, I’m not sure Stewart himself realizes the biting force of his own film.
Stewart has plenty of negative things to say about Republicans, to be sure—they’re framed as the villains, after all—but at bottom this movie feels like it was written to puncture center-left pieties. In a particularly lacerating sequence that recalls Tom Wolfe’s “Radical Chic,” Zimmer shepherds Hastings to a high-dollar fundraiser in New York City. Hastings, utterly out of his element, denounces them for their wealth relative to impoverished Deerlaken— and unsurprisingly, the guilt-stricken liberal donors immediately flood his campaign with cash. Also coming in for skewering are the inability of D.C. urbanites to talk to Americans of a different social class, and the smug assumption that the Democratic National Committee has a right to the votes of all minority Americans.
But at bottom, the real target of Stewart’s film is the pervasive assumption that coastal power brokers—of whatever political party—are smarter and more worthy of success than the residents of America’s impoverished heartland. In this, “Irresistible” evokes recent books like Chris Arnade’s “Dignity” that stress working-class Americans’ longing to be seen as fully human, as valued participants in the national conversation, rather than as problems to be solved by statisticians and journalists.
Accordingly, I found “Irresistible” to be an appropriately withering assault on the narratives that political elites tell themselves. What is needed is that the chattering class learn to listen, rather than talk over, the ones whose votes they crave—and also invest in, rather than demonize or cravenly exploit, the forgotten communities of America. And as someone who has lots of opinions on lots of topics, that’s a message I need to hear and internalize as much as anyone else.