IRRESISTIBLE (2020) – Review
As the “year from Hell” AKA 2020 continues to drag on and on, we can all agree that the oppressive tension of our current state could be deflated by a good dose of humor. In other words, we can all use a “big laugh”. Really. And so, amongst the somber “indie” premieres streaming on-demand (and a few, ah I recall, theatres are slowly unlocking their doors), comes a flat-out, “LOL” comedy that leans heavily on satire. And just what is it taking on? Well, you wouldn’t think this topic would lend itself to laughs at this date. No, it’s not set in the arenas of death and disease. nor the “racial struggle’ (but it does get a few “jabs” in). Hard to fathom, but this farce is set squarely in the world of politics. And before you groan or sigh, a big bonus is the reuniting of two giants of topical TV comedy who have not worked together in nearly 15 years (cause enough for celebration). They help make this flick simply IRRESISTIBLE.
Just be warned that it does begin on a dark depressing note. After a quick overview of the recent careers of DNC media guru Gary Zimmer (Steve Carell) and his nemesis for the GOP, Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne), the story slams into Election Day 2016. Gary becomes the whipping boy/laughing stock of the cable news shows. But though he’s down, he finds the strength to return to his office and staff. There one of his crew shows him a YouTube video from a recent town hall meeting in Deerlokken, WI (pop. ten grand). Mayor Braun (Brent Sexton) and his “good ole’ boys” are about to push through an ordinance that would deny access to economic recovery funds to the “new arrivals”. Just as the final hammer is about to go down, in strides a local farmer, Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper) to the microphone. Braun tries to shut him down, but Hastings makes an impassioned, heartfelt plea to stop their plans. Zimmer is mesmerized then stunned when he finds out that this voice for the disenfranchised is “ex-military”, a colonel to boot. Could he be a new voice for the party, one that could appeal to everyone? That chance is enough to get Gary on a flight to connect with the “Colonel” (his hometown nickname). When they meet, Zimmer tries to convince him that he would be a great Democratic candidate for mayor. Despite some interest from the widowed farmer’s twenty-something daughter Diana (Mackenzie Davis), Hastings declines. The next day he somehow has a change of heart. He’s in the race, but only if Zimmer himself (no other staffers) runs his mayoral campaign. Gary agrees, but soon word of his presence attracts (much like blood in the water to a shark) Brewster who flies in to run the re-election push for Braun. Just what will happen to this sleepy little town when two media titans make it their personal battleground, as the consultants and campaign cash begin to arrive?
The last time we saw (instead of hearing him in the Gru/Minion-verse) Mr. Carell on the big screen two years ago, he was spreading his “dramatic wings” in the films VICE (though “Rummy” could be abrasively funny), BEAUTIFUL BOY, and WELCOME TO MARWEN (if you saw that at the theatre, well you’re part of a small elite few). In the last few years, he’s been getting back to comedy via the small (streaming) screen with Apple TV’s “The Morning Show” and Netflix’s “Space Force” (which should be much better). With this film he reminds us that he’s a terrific comedic leading man, reminding us of Cary Grant’s manic turn in ARSENIC AND OLD LACE and the movie resume of the recently departed and much-missed Gene Wilder. Steve takes up his exasperated, flustered everyman persona with great success. Unlike Carell’s “Office” role and especially his “Anchorman” dim bulb, Zimmer is smart, but his ego often gets the better of him and keeps him from really connecting with these small-town folks (think Eddie Albert in “Green Acres”). Plus his ambition often has him verbally “running over” anyone who can’t “get it” and crushing their feelings. He’s more concerned with winning than in really helping his candidate or the town. And who does he really want to defeat? Not Braun but his arch-enemy Brewster played with dead-eyed malevolence by the low-key, but still smoldering Byrne. With her perfect bright blonde locks and eyes at half-mast, Brewster is a soul-less non-stop spewer of lies and half-truths (a big plus in her line of work). Then in her more intimate moments, Byrne is like an indifferent cat playing with a mouse as she engages in a twisted mating dance with Zimmer (that old adage about “strange bedfellows”). These are two great adversaries who may channel their mutual disgust into unbridled lust. At the center of their newest clash is Cooper who brings a Jimmy Stewart/Henry Fonda “aw shucks” sincerity to the role of Hastings. But Cooper doesn’t keep him on a pedestal as he shows us the man’s discomfort at self-promotion, first at a clumsy press announcement then at fund-raiser in NYC (he hates “passing the hat”). He’s got great support and rapport with Davis as his down-to-Earth only child whose fresh-scrubbed wholesome visage offers more fuel for Zimmer’s efforts (maybe it’s that whole “farmer’s daughter” thing). As part of Zimmer’s staff, Topher Grace and Natasha Lyonne score big laughs, but the main “scene-stealer” might be the wonderful slapstick cameo by classic comic master Bill Irwin (if he’d been born 100 years ago we’d be talking about him alongside Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd) as a wonky, tech-enabled “gazillionaire’.
So what was the reunion that I hinted at a while back? Well, you see, this film is written and directed by Jon Stewart, Carell’s old “Daily Show” co-star (kinda’ since Jon’s name was in the title), his first since 2014’s ROSEWATER. And let me say, no shout “Welcome back!!”. Yes, that last film was compelling and well-done, but this sophomore effort really hits all the right notes. Though it stumbles a bit in the opening moments with a montage of the two “spinners” spewing unvarnished truths, it “hits the ground running” post-presidential election as Zimmer fights a losing battle with his now sentient household tech (imagine Hal-9000 saying “I don’t like your tone”). And Stewart gets the Wisconsin town’s look and feel just right. After its military base shut down, the once-bustling main street is a boarded-up husk with the signs fading in the sun. Later Stewart shows his knack for parody with several phony TV spots for his candidates that are hysterically and painfully authentic (in one Col. Hastings just blasts a pond with a machine gun for 15 seconds). The topper may be the town “election fair” in which all the specialty (and fringe) interest groups have set up tables in the park. The swipes at the media giants work well since they use the actual cable networks names like Fox, CNN, and MSNBC complete with actors looking very close to the true “on-air talent”. But Stewart doesn’t neglect his characters while tossing his satiric grenades. Despite his faults (or perhaps because of) we really care about Zimmer, making us root for him despite his arrogance. And we’re protective of Hastings, a good man in danger of ignoring his staunch values. Luckily Stewart’s clever script throws us plenty of curves as we near the big election day. And yes, the finale leans a tad hard on lecturing, and “this could happen” (but will it be on the final), but that’s easily forgiven after several truly inspired comic ‘set-pieces”. It’s thought-provoking and rib-tickling, making IRRESISTIBLE impossible to resist. So vote early and often!
3.5 Out of 4
IRRESISTIBLE plays in select theatres and is available as a Video On Demand via most cable and satellite systems along with most streaming apps and platforms.