SPOILERS FOLLOW FOR JON STEWART’S IRRESISTIBLE AND STEVEN SODERBERGH’S THE LAUNDROMAT
I thought Steven Soderbergh’s The Laundromat was the most disappointing movie about our political time, a movie that really had the gall to put Meryl Streep in brownface and then have her break the fourth wall while she reveals her deceit, eventually urging us all to VOTE. Never mind that the Panama Papers, which the film is about, named both Democrats and Republicans. Never mind that this sort of large-scale corruption and financial irresponsibility affects people of both political persuasions. Just vote, and it will be fine!
Irresistible (which Dustin reviewed for us; you can read that here) pulls the same shit, telling us during the end credits to RESIST (wow, great advice, thank you so much), and yes, it is worse than The Laundromat. Jon Stewart’s second directorial feature wonders whether Democrats and Republicans are really that different because they both receive tons in untraceable campaign funding. That is the entirety of Stewart’s argument—both sides only care about spending when there are campaigns! Isn’t that AWFUL? Stewart isn’t interested in analyzing the myriad other reasons that certain voters might actually see Democrats and Republicans similarly. Like the rampant imperialism espoused by both parties: President Barack Obama, a Democrat, oversaw more drone strikes in his first year as commander in chief than his predecessor, President George W. Bush, a Republican, carried out during his entire presidency; meanwhile, President Donald Trump has been trying to instigate a war with Iran for years. Or like the questionable people both parties employ: One of Harvey Weinstein’s main PR advisors, Anita Dunn, was elevated to a major position in Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden’s team; war hawk trashbox John Bolton, before he refused to testify during the Congress impeachment hearings so he could write his lame-ass book, worked for Trump after working for both President Ronald Reagan and GWB. Or like the bills and laws they support: Both Republicans and Democrats voted in December 2019 for the National Defense Authorization Act, handing Trump $738 billion to fund the US/Mexico border wall, the Space Force that might not even get its own copyright because Netflix got there first, and the Saudi-led war in Yemen, which has led to widespread civilian death and the potential for what the United Nations called “the worst famine in the world in 100 years.” And as Trump has built his entire presidency around racist dog whistles and blatant prejudice and hatred, it was a Democratic mayor and Democratic governor who were in office while George Floyd was murdered by the Minneapolis police.
But of course, there are differences to the parties, too, and Irresistible fails in taking them seriously. Of course there are ways to consider the corruption, malfeasance, and immorality of both political parties, if you’re willing to actually engage with what both parties have really done. If you’re willing to. But Irresistible is not willing to. No, Stewart’s film focuses only on campaign spending, then sets up a false equivalency—“Both Democrats and Republicans are bad for using campaigns in this way”—and then depicts Democrats as the only party with moral failings. Steve Carell’s Democratic campaign operative Gary Zimmer should be ASHAMED of considering going low! How dare he! Gary catches feelings for the principled, country-wholesome Diana Hastings (Mackenzie Davis), a woman who is decades younger than he is! GROSS. He can’t control his lust toward Republican operative Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne), and keeps tumbling into bed with her although he loathes her. IMMORAL.
Stewart thinks that by flagellating Gary, he’ll make the case that Democrats are inaccessible and distant from real America, and he’ll somehow appeal to us as viewers, I guess, to reconsider our own alleged elitism. That’s a tactic, I suppose? It’s not a good one in the time of Trump, when the small-town Americans that Stewart portrays here as so reasonable and practical were also some of the people strapping on guns and body armor to go protest in the streets for fucking haircuts and fajitas in the middle of a global pandemic. It’s cowardly to make a film lampooning Democrats as out of touch rather than Republicans as unquestionably evil, but this is what “centrism” is these days, and that’s the “both sides” ideology that Stewart espoused back during his days on The Daily Show, and that’s the shit that doesn’t fly anymore. Not in 2020, when everything sucks all the time. On the one hand, Republicans now aren’t really doing that much different from what they’ve always done in terms of worshiping rich people, hating minorities, punishing women, and prioritizing police and military spending for their own gun-fetishist desires; they’re just ruder and less willing to perform a certain kind of political gentility, because their president doesn’t. But on the other hand, Stewart never imagines, say, a Republican fundraiser in Irresistible. Instead, he takes us to a Democratic one in a moneyed New York City location, where platters of food are identified with little placards: PALEO, KOSHER, HALAL. As Stewart pans across the table, you overhear snatches of conversation during the fundraiser: “We get comfy in our own little ideological bubbles,” someone says. Then we see an interracial lesbian couple, one woman wearing a “STAY” T-shirt and another with a “WOKE” T-shirt. “Look at these performative liberals,” Stewart seems to be sneering, “with their various thoughtful menu options,” and it’s unbelievably depressing that the man we once thought was one of the most astute political voices out there builds an entire scene into his film to mock people wanting to make a difference, as if having the bravery to care about things is the most contemptible shit there is.
Unintentionally, but perhaps tellingly, Stewart’s methodologies in Irresistible actually center his own whiteness, and show how blandly unimaginative Stewart is in imagining a political process that includes anyone who is Black or Latinx or Asian or Middle Eastern or indigenous. Take the reason that Carell’s Gary is driven to visit Deerlaken, Wisconsin: He sees former Marine, farmer, and all-around great American guy Col. Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper) give a speech at a town meeting in defense of Deerlaken’s undocumented immigrants. In the “Hero Marine stands up for immigrants” video, Jack had said, “I’m not saying you’re a bad person, I’m saying you’re scared,” to the mayor who wanted to pass a law about checking IDs, because Stewart is too afraid in this film to call anyone a racist even when they’re being racist. So Gary goes to what Stewart tells us by intertitle is “RURAL, AMERICA. HEARTLAND, USA,” where Jack lives, and does he … ever ask to meet those undocumented immigrants Jack was defending? No. I’m assuming this movie wants us to assume that undocumented immigrants are Latinx, but does Gary ever even ask Jack about whether he knows anyone undocumented? Or if there is a Latinx representative with whom Gary could speak? Does he ask any of the people who maintain these programs that the Mayor was threatening to enforce with ID checks if they know of any undocumented immigrants that Gary could talk to about what their needs are? Nope, nope, nope. (And sure, you can make the point that the town lied to get Gary there and maybe made up those undocumented immigrants as an excuse … but isn’t it low-key racist that the townspeople Stewart eventually reveals as savvy political connoisseurs still turned brown people into props for their own desire for attention, and there are no repercussions for it or judgment against that within the film itself? Anyway, I digress.)
The movie progresses. Everyone is white. The news anchors Stewart mocks are white. Gary and Faith are white; Jack and his daughter, the lusted-after Diana, are white. The people who work at the beer hall are white, who work at the bakery are white. The party operatives Gary brings in, played by Topher Grace and Natasha Lyonne, are white. (Interestingly, Gary is portrayed as a high-level supporter of Hillary Rodham Clinton, but Hillary in her real life was at least supported by advisors like Huma Abedin and Dennis Cheng; Irresistible makes no space for such POC figures.) In reality, we know the Democratic Party to be more diverse than this, and we know America to be more diverse than this. But Stewart doesn’t build any non-white faces into his film until the mayoral Election Day, when suddenly there is a group of Black citizens wearing Black Lives Matter T-shirts, coming to vote. Earlier in the film, Democratic ops said the town only had one Black man—so where did these people come from? Also earlier, those same ops mention the abbreviation MOSHES for “Mélange of Some Hispanics”—but again, we never see that community. Why wouldn’t Gary or Jack want to meet with them? Also bizarre is when Stewart shows us a cluster of young people wearing black bandannas over their face, hanging out on Election Day. This town also has an antifa contingent? Are you fucking kidding me? Are these teenagers armed with bike-repair tools also being threatened by Republicans strapped with military-grade shit they bought off eBay, spray-painted with the Punisher logo, who look like Starship Troopers rejects? Then that’s not REAL AMERICA, Jon!
Stewart knows that Democrats want to hear about diversity, but then he can’t actually be bothered to show us any throughout Irresistible, and it’s a failing of the film that shows his own ideological narrowness. He’s so desperate to make Democrats and Republicans exactly the same and equally as bad that he ignores, in fact, that the Democratic Party is more diverse than his imagining, and that the power of the party helps come from those Black, Latinx, Asian, Middle Eastern, indigenous voices. Many of those diverse members have been trying to make the party more progressive, more inclusive, more willing to advocate for those undocumented immigrants that Stewart can’t even be bothered to display. In an earlier scene, Stewart shows us Gary being irritated by Democratic establishment leaders paying lip service to diversity without actually doing anything. Then he makes sure to show us Gary’s hypocrisy by having him yell inside the Deerlaken headquarters, surrounded by workers, “Find me some more fucking Hispanics … I need some more fucking Hispanics!” Gary is an asshole, we’re meant to know now, and his apology is typical mealy mouthed bullshit, claiming that his outburst was a “teachable moment”: “I have given you a gift. I vow to make this office a color- and gender-neutral work environment.” Again, we’re supposed to laugh at this, at how Gary course corrects. So what’s the punch line here? That not wanting to be disrespected is amusing?
But Stewart should lump himself in for critique, too, because all of this exclusion is clearly unintentional. Stewart isn’t playing some sort of meta long game where he excludes Black and brown people as a way to show us the mistakes the Democratic Party is making, because he does include Black and brown people at that NYC fundraiser where he mocks dietary preference and its thematic sister, giving a shit. He also takes a moment to insult the Squad, much like Carell and Space Force co-creator Greg Daniels do in their painfully unfunny Netflix show. Real edgy stuff! Stewart can include Black and brown people in this narrative to make fun of them and their political demands, but not to actually explore or give voice to their perspectives.
“Your words spoke to value, not identity,” Gary says to Jack as a way to convince the colonel that he is, in fact, a Democrat, but Stewart is doing that thing here where he prioritizes ideology over cultural identity. And I get it: There are certain buzzwords that Americans can’t abide by. Most of this country wants universal health care, but note how this would, in fact, be a socialist policy, and they’ll flip their fucking shit. A solid chunk of this country is “deplorable,” but call them that and they’ll yell about your fucking emails. But Stewart isn’t wading into any touchy subjects in Irresistible (aside from a staggeringly awful moment where Stewart sort of, maybe, but not totally, talks about support of Israel without ever once mentioning the word “Palestine”), nor does he realize that sometimes someone’s identity is exactly what builds their values. Those two are interlinked. And to ignore people of certain identities, as Stewart does in this film, is to undercut their value. “Guys like me don’t know how to talk to guys like you,” Gary says to Jack. But white men talking to other white men? I’m pretty sure we all know how that works in America. Irresistible isn’t saying anything we don’t already know.
Irresistible is available on VOD and for digital rental as of June 26, 2020.
Image sources (in order of posting): Focus Features, Focus Features, Focus Features