The mood of the new Jon Stewart film, “Irresistible,” is caught by the song at the start—Bob Seger’s “Still the Same,” from 1978. Listen to the upbeat cynicism: holding out for better times but guessing that nothing will change. “Moving game to game,” Seger sings. “Turning on the charm / Long enough to get you by.” That certainly fits Gary Zimmer (Steve Carell), a Democratic strategist, who crawls from the wreckage of the 2016 election and goes hunting for fresh hope. Unexpectedly, he finds it in Deerlaken, Wisconsin. Or, as a title onscreen refers to it, “Rural America, Heartland U.S.A.”
And that’s the problem. The rural is an abstraction, somewhere out in the nation’s midriff, beloved of political tacticians but rarely visited. (Hillary Clinton famously forgot, or neglected, to swing through Wisconsin during her campaign, and wound up losing the state.) And, even when it is visited, the heartland is all too easy to misread; we spot Gary, schmuckiness incarnate, looking up Wisconsin on Wikipedia as he munches baby balls of mozzarella on a private jet from the East Coast. Arriving in Deerlaken, he walks into a bar and, to the bemusement of the bartender, orders “a Bud and a burger.” In a Hofbrau? Dummkopf.
Gary is on a mission. He has come to meet Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper), a.k.a. Colonel Jack, a retired marine, a farmer, and a widower. A video of him, taken as he hymns the virtues of decency and public service during a town meeting, has gone viral, and Gary believes that such a fine fellow should stand for office not only in this conservative district but maybe far beyond. “He’s a Democrat,” Gary says. “He just doesn’t know it yet.” Grudgingly, Jack agrees to run for mayor, if Gary will take charge of the campaign. And so, lever by lever, the machinery of electioneering is cranked into life, from flyers and lawn signs to pollsters, number crunchers, and a war room stuffed with banks of monitors. If Mr. Smith won’t go to Washington, Washington will come to Mr. Smith.
A noble tradition, not merely of movies, stretches out behind “Irresistible.” Gary is an update of Aesop’s town mouse, set adrift in the country. (The funniest specimen is Mr. Salter, the foreign editor of a major London newspaper in Evelyn Waugh’s “Scoop,” who braces himself for a trip to the mossiest backwoods of England. Travelling, he admits, “always upsets me.”) Deerlaken is flustered by the political circus much as a quiet New England town was by the onslaught of a production company in “State and Main” (2000), and the image of Jack’s daughter, Diana (Mackenzie Davis), with her arm stuck up the rear end of a cow is standard visual shorthand for the ickiness of the outdoors; Billy Crystal pulls the identical move in “City Slickers” (1991). In every case, we need to ask: is the movie mocking the slicker or channelling—wittingly or otherwise—his disorientation and his distaste?
The question is a serious one, in Stewart’s new film, because it troubles his political good faith. He clearly despairs of a broken system, and his conscience naturally allies him with Colonel Jack. Yet the movie can’t help tuning out the voices of the very people whose cause it seeks to espouse. Consider the sequence in which a group of locals are shocked to hear that Jack’s Republican rival is now spending money on his own campaign. All we get are multiple shots of Gary’s reaction to the news—comically overwrought, the implication being that these people are even greener and more primitive than he thought. Sure, he’s the hero of the drama, in his wicked fashion, and, sure, Carell is the star. (As usual, he is half frozen in a rictus of desperation: eager to please, wherever possible, but basically hating people anyway.) Wouldn’t it be nice, though, if Davis, for one, were allowed to get a word in edgewise? If you want to see a proper mayoral race, as noisy and as crowded as a sack of cats, try “Hail the Conquering Hero” (1944). It’s a Preston Sturges film, which means a democratic overload: everyone gets a word in, all the time.
To be fair, “Irresistible” picks up in the final quarter, with the aid of a clever twist that whistles in from nowhere. We get an assortment of different endings, each undercutting the last. It’s as if this dozy film has woken up, belatedly, to its comic responsibilities and opportunities. We even hear the director himself, over the end credits, quizzing Trevor Potter, the former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, about super PACs. Stewart reckons that he’s found a loophole—a way to rook the whole damn racket and play it for a fool. So why make a movie about it? Why not pack a bag, take your plan to Heartland U.S.A., and try it out?
In a small fishing town on the Icelandic coast live Lars Erickssong (Will Ferrell) and Sigrit Ericksdottir (Rachel McAdams). They are not brother and sister—or, as Lars is careful to add, “probably not.” In a tight-knit community, you can’t always be sure. But he and Sigrit are tied in a kinship that is warmer than blood. Both of them worship the Eurovision Song Contest, the annual competition in which nations are brought together in jubilant harmony by the ritual torture and murder of three-minute pop songs. Lars and Sigrit, who perform as Fire Saga, dream of representing Iceland at the finals; how that dream pans out is told in “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga.”
Has there ever been a title more hedged with nerves? Could it be that the movie’s director, David Dobkin, is concerned that viewers might not have heard of Eurovision? It’s as if Mel Gibson, on the brink of releasing “Braveheart,” had decided to rename it “The First War of Scottish Independence, 1296-1328: The Story of William Wallace.” What’s touching about Dobkin’s film is that the anxiety never fades. “Is Eurovision like ‘The Voice’?” an American asks. “No, it’s not like ‘The Voice,’ ” Lars replies. All is explained, or foretold, in the opening credits, where we learn that the movie was made “in association with E.B.U.” This stands for the European Broadcasting Union, the body that has overseen Eurovision since its birth, in 1956. What we are about to watch, in other words, is a promo masquerading as a satire.
Whether you can satirize the Eurovision Song Contest is another matter. The joke that has sustained Eurovision over the decades, and that feeds “The Story of Fire Saga,” is that the ardent gravity with which it is treated by the contenders stands in inverse proportion to their talent; where else can you witness such a mountainous range of human incompetence, in all its self-deluding glory? When I went to Oslo, in 2010, to report on the contest for this magazine, it was the first occasion since childhood on which I found myself weeping with laughter, sometimes through my nose. Would that Dobkin’s film could summon such sweet tears.
There are smatterings of plot. By diktat, the country that triumphs at Eurovision has to host the competition the following year. That prospect alarms the governor of the Central Bank of Iceland (Mikael Persbrandt), who knows how ruinous the cost would be. He is therefore quite content that the Icelandic entrants should be Lars and Sigrit—a pair of guaranteed losers. So they fly to Edinburgh, where the contest is taking place; there, they go head to head against acts such as Belarus’s Moon Fang, San Marino’s Dalibor Jinsky (with “Hit My Itch”), and, from Sweden, Johnny John John. These artistes are fun, but no more so than the real ones who sprout forth in an average Eurovision year. That which already lies beyond parody is, by definition, impossible to lampoon.