In Jon Stewart’s prim-and-proper political satire, Washington spin doctors get mixed up with a small-town election, writes Paul Whitington
Gore Vidal once said that he bought his villa on the cliff tops of the Amalfi Coast because it was "a wonderful place from which to observe the end of the world". If the great man were still alive, he'd have a box seat for what looks like the imminent collapse of American democracy, the pet subject he returned to time and again in numerous elegantly jaded essays.
Americans never tire of hubristically crowing about the magnificence of their constitution and the infallible checks and balances of a two-house presidential system. After four years of Trump, it doesn't look quite so infallible, as virtually every aspect of government has been attacked, infiltrated and undermined by the bombastic and semi-literate TV celebrity.
In fairness to Agent Orange, however, American democracy has been in big trouble for at least a half century, its institutions hopelessly compromised by big business, vested interests and - most of all - money. That's the underlying theme of Irresistible, an earnest but soft-pedalling political comedy from Jon Stewart that seeks to wrest macro truths from a micro scenario. That would be Deerlaken, Wisconsin, a small rural community that attracts the interest of a renowned Democratic Party spin doctor.
Gary Zimmer (Steve Carell) is still reeling from the cataclysm that was the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign when he's sent a YouTube video of an impassioned speech at Deerlaken's town hall. In line with White House diktats, Mayor Braun (Brent Sexton), an affable Republican, is announcing plans to hunt down undocumented workers when he's interrupted from the floor by Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper), a local farmer who gives a rousing speech about true justice and other outmoded American values.
He's straight-talking, dignified, and a former US Marine Colonel to boot: Zimmer is entranced, because Jack Hastings is his dream candidate - an all-American patriot who's also a progressive. And a campaign win like this, Gary reckons, might be just the shock to loosen the Trump administration's stranglehold on the Midwest.
Off to Deerlaken with him then, where he clumsily attempts to bond with locals by ordering burgers and Budweiser (which he detests) and pretending to be interested in all sorts of down home things he couldn't give a fig about.
When Gary goes to the Hastings' farm to try and persuade Jack to run for mayor, the initial reception is cool. Jack's daughter Diana (Mackenzie Davis) wonders what this DC wonk is up to, and Hastings himself is vague, evasive. But eventually Gary wins him over to the idea of running, and at a glitzy fundraiser in New York they gather millions of dollars as a campaign war chest. And Gary knows that hostilities have truly commenced when the Republicans send their own cold-blooded strategist to Deerlaken to make sure their candidate doesn't lose.
Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne) has a history with Gary, including the odd sexual encounter, but she's a remorseless campaigner whose motto seems to be: if they go low, we go lower. Things soon turn nasty, and the locals watch with wry amusement as reinforcements, TV cameras and even more money flood into the previously sleepy town.
Jon Stewart, who wrote and directs Irresistible, ought to know what he's talking about. For 16 years he was the jolly, acerbic host of The Daily Show, on which his withering insights into the political shenanigans of George W Bush, Dick Cheney and 'news' channels like Fox made him the doyen of east coast liberals. He never hid his Democrat bias, but his flair for flatly calling out idiocies on both sides of the political divide was bracing.
Not much of that blunt speaking on display here, however, because Irresistible is a curiously old-fashioned and frustratingly polite attempt at satire. Steve Carell is always good, but even he struggles to breathe life into a central character whose lack of ruthlessness makes you wonder how he ever got hired by the Democrats in the first place. He is sly, and secretly looks down on the Wisconsin rubes, but in dramatic terms could have done with a little less Jimmy Stewart and a bit more Malcolm Tucker: the film would have benefited from the contrast.
Faith Brewster has plenty of Tucker moxie, but is a one-note creation and never seems like an actual person. Rose Byrne is a fine comic actress, but Stewart's script does her no favours whatsoever.
Irresistible is perfectly watchable, and does quietly make the point that money infects even the most modest American elections, making real democracy all but impossible. But it has the wholesome mood of a 1940s comedy, and treads far more carefully through the minefield of modern US politics than it ought. President Trump hardly gets a mention, which is wishful thinking perhaps on the part of Mr Stewart, who may be hoping the Donald will soon be a thing of the past.
Will Ferrell comedies have been hit and miss in recent times, and here the big man lands a resounding miss. He and Rachel McAdams play Lars and Sigrit, two Icelandic singer-songwriters whose dream is to represent their country at the Eurovision and maybe even win it.
Lars' father, Erick (Pierce Brosnan), is a beer-swilling fisherman who wishes his middle-aged son would just grow up. Little chance of that, especially when a freak boating accident kills all the other entrants for Iceland's National Song Contest, leaving Lars and Sigrit's group Fire Saga with a clear run to this year's Eurovision in Edinburgh.
Despite his heroic attempts at a Scandinavian twang, there's little to distinguish Lars from any of the clumsy idiots Mr Ferrell has played in a dozen other half-assed comedies. McAdams performs a thin role with grace and charm, and Brosnan almost succeeds in hiding himself completely behind a heroic salt and pepper beard.
Dan Stevens alone provides actual laughs playing an absurdly dashing and self-confident Russian singer who says things like "sexy time" with chilling conviction.
The songs are quite good, too good in fact to be actual entries for the real Eurovision, an annual parade of tone deaf Eurotrashery which we've mercifully been spared this year. But overall The Story of Fire Saga falls flat on its face, and I think I know why. After all, how do you satirise something that does the job so very effectively itself?