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Even Jon Stewart's satire can't compete with real-world craziness

Starring Steve Carrell and Rose Byrne, this take on US politics by the former host of The Daily Show never even tries to match the absurdities of today.

IRRESISTIBLE ★★

(M) 102 minutes

It’s become a cliche to observe that today’s political satirists have trouble competing with the craziness of the news. But the toothless Irresistible – written and directed by Jon Stewart, the former host of The Daily Show – barely makes the attempt. Stewart’s satire is directed less at individuals than at the machine that is mainstream US politics as a whole, represented by Steve Carell as Gary Zimmer, a Democratic political strategist frustrated by his party’s failure to connect with the American heartland.

Chris Cooper stars as Jack Hastings and Steve Carell as Gary Zimmer in Irresistible.

Chris Cooper stars as Jack Hastings and Steve Carell as Gary Zimmer in Irresistible.

Gary thinks he’s struck gold when he’s shown a YouTube video of a rousing speech delivered by Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper), a widowed farmer and military veteran from the fictional town of Deerlaken, Wisconsin, who “looks conservative but talks progressive”. Soon Gary is headed for Deerlaken with the goal of persuading Jack to run for mayor and thus elevating him to a national figure whose salt-of-the-earth appeal can be used to lure swing voters everywhere.

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Much of what follows is fish-out-of-water comedy centred on Gary, who is always a bit too slick and pleased with himself – not least in his man-of-the-people affectations, such as ordering hamburgers at the German-themed bar which becomes his Deerlaken home. Yet we’re also meant to believe in his good intentions and sympathise with his setbacks, which allow Carell to reprise elements of the loveable doofus character he’s played so often.

Where Gary rarely stops babbling, Jack is a man of few words, and the film gives only occasional hints of what might be lurking behind Cooper’s crafty gaze and disarming grin. Sadly, this odd-couple relationship isn’t exploited as it might have been, since the focus shifts to Gary’s efforts to wrangle a group of blandly characterised young campaign volunteers, with Jack’s daughter Diana (Mackenzie Davis) the brightest of the bunch.

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Representing the forces ranged against them is Rose Byrne, as Gary’s briskly cynical Republican counterpart. These two spar like predestined lovers in a rom-com, a subplot that livens up proceedings even if we’re given little reason to invest in them as a couple.

At the core of Irresistible is a genuinely clever plot idea, which I won’t give away, and which could have been allowed to escalate much further. But it’s plain all along that Stewart has little interest in his characters and their troubles except as a means for him to score didactic points, primarily about the evils of unrestricted campaign financing.

Nor does he have much sense of cinematic style, let alone the wild imagination that effective satire requires in one form or another. The upshot is a film as smug and cautious as Gary himself, as if the aim were to have viewers not shrieking in dismayed laughter but sagely nodding their heads.

Jake Wilson is a film critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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