Irresistible (M, 129 minutes)
American comedian Jon Stewart hosted the articulate news comedy show The Daily Show from 1999 to 2015, which in an age of partisan coverage from other US news networks, stuck it to both sides in a delightfully balanced fashion.
Stewart handed the anchor's chair to Trevor Noah and has spent the last four years building his filmmaking portfolio, beginning with the international political drama Rosewater, and now this acerbic timely comedy, released into Australian cinemas in time to benefit from and help cast judgment upon the US presidential election.
Headlining the film is Steve Carell, now so firmly cemented as the go-to big name in big-budget comedy, in the way Jim Carrey was two decades ago. I never quite warmed to Carell the movie star, but I did love him, pre-The Office, when he worked for Jon Stewart as writer and correspondent on The Daily Show so many years ago, and under Stewart's direction again here, I found him charming, likeable and laugh-out-loud funny.
Wounded from the fresh defeat of Hillary Clinton, the client whose election campaign he ran, Gary Zimmer (Carell) is wallowing in misery when a junior staffer shows him an online clip of an impassioned speech Colonel Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper) has made to a local council meeting in Deerlaken, Wisconsin.
Stewart enjoys manipulating his audience.
Gary sees something in the widowed Marine veteran farmer - a chance to redeem his recent election defeat and to "road-test a more rural-friendly message" in one of the country's swing-states. Gary makes the trip to the small town to convince Jack to run as a Democrat in the local mayoral election, viewing it as a chance to hone the messaging he might need to defeat the Republicans in the distant 2019 federal election.
Jack says he will only do it if Gary himself runs the campaign, and so Gary brings in an army of big-city consultants, which in turn draws rival Republican campaign hack Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne) to town to support incumbent Mayor Braun (Brent Sexton).
The campaign begins to be less and less about the small community and the challenges its mayoral race hopes to address, and more about super PACs, big donors cutting cheques, and media profiles.
Stewart skewers the political campaigning process from start to finish, from focus group to sound bites. With so much of present-day televised politics feeling staged and manipulated, it's reassuring to have Stewart pull back the curtain.
The writing is rich with rapid-fire bon mots. Gary calls his new political protege a "Bill Clinton with impulse control". Gary's target-marketing interns carpet a particular neighbourhood with pro-contraception campaign literature because their polling identified an unusually high number of single women deeply interested in reproductive rights, neglecting to actually visit the street and realise it's a convent. I laughed throughout.
The pairing of Carell against Rose Byrne's Kellyanne Conway-adjacent Faith works very well, the pair spitting their dialogue at each other. Byrne continues to build with every performance into a comedic superstar, her strength in building up the performers she plays against.
There's a twist I didn't see coming that elevates the film beyond the other political comedies it emulates, like Wag the Dog or Bob Roberts, emulating a The Truman Show self-referentialness that will pay off on multiple viewings.
Stewart enjoys manipulating his audience, because that's the whole point of his subject matter.
Aiding in the manipulation is his appropriation of iconic rock, starting with Bob Seger's Still the Same, continuing through the score from Bryce Dessner. The editing is rapid fire also. Many cuts, many small scenes. Which unfortunately means many characters don't progress beyond their gags.
Stewart draws in an army of bigger-name pals in small parts, each with their own set of great lines. Debra Messing is hilariously obnoxious in an early scene. Natasha Lyonne and Topher Grace are a pair of liberal elite consultants.
The film opens with a piece of archival film showing a sideshow strongman being shot with cannonballs, which surely must be what putting yourself up to be judged and debated about in the political sphere must feel like. And the film's closing credits are worth staying through, with Stewart sharing an interview with Trevor Potter, former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, confirming the factual basis behind Stuart's implausibly complicated political plotting.