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'Irresistible' review: Jon Stewart's political comedy more diverting than incisive

Rose Byrne stars as Faith Brewster and Steve

Rose Byrne stars as Faith Brewster and Steve Carell as Gary Zimmer in "Irresistible." Credit: Focus Features/Daniel McFadden

PLOT A top Democratic strategist takes on a small-town mayoral campaign.

CAST Steve Carrell, Rose Byrne, Chris Cooper

RATED R (language)

LENGTH 1:41

WHERE On demand

BOTTOM LINE Jon Stewart’s featherweight political comedy is more diverting than incisive.

Leave it to Jon Stewart to make a breezy little comedy about campaign finance reform. “Irresistible,” the second feature from the firebrand former host of “The Daily Show,” wraps a crucially important yet deeply unsexy issue inside a cute, fish-out-of-water story about a Beltway big shot who parachutes into a small-town mayoral race. Stewart’s pitch: Come for the comedy, stay for the civics lesson.

Not that “Irresistible” is preachy (though its title contains a hidden message: “resist”). Its star is the always likable Steve Carell as Gary Zimmer, a Democratic strategist still stinging after Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential campaign. Gary is a classic screwball comedy archetype: the big-city swell, out of touch with his values. Stewart wrote the part with his former “Daily Show” correspondent in mind, and Carell gives it his usual appealing mix of cockiness and cluelessness.

Meanwhile, in Deerlaken, Wisconsin — identified on screen as “Rural America, Heartland, USA” — a gruff farmer named Colonel Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper) delivers a pro-immigration speech at a town hall meeting. It’s a “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” moment, captured on YouTube, and it inspires Gary with a new purpose: To run Jack for mayor and help swing the whole state left. (An added attraction: The farmer’s daughter, played by Mackenzie Davis.) All goes well until the arrival of Gary’s nemesis, the Republican operative Faith Brewster, a blithely hostile blonde played by a slightly underused Rose Byrne. The gloves, of course, come off.

The movie’s city-slicker jokes land softly; Gary has never seen a twist-top beer bottle, for instance. Natasha Lyonne and Topher Grace, as competing number-crunchers, provide wonky humor about the vagaries of polling. Stewart’s screenplay improves, as you might expect, whenever he skewers politics itself. Jack’s pretzel-logic campaign commercials are a hoot (“A Redder Shade of Blue!”) and there are some real zingers sprinkled through the dialogue. “Twenty bucks says I do better with fear,” Faith tells Gary, “than you do with shame” — a pretty nifty summation of both parties’ messaging.

Stewart’s instincts are good: In today’s political climate, light comedy is probably more attractive than bitter satire. Still, imagine what Stewart could have done with this material if he’d really fired up his lasers. In the end, “Irresistible” feels pleasant enough, but it could have used a little less sugar and a little more pill.

IRRESISTIBLE (2 ½ STARS)

PLOT A top Democratic strategist takes on a small-town mayoral campaign.

CAST Steve Carrell, Rose Byrne, Chris Cooper

RATED R (language)

LENGTH 1:41

WHERE On demand

BOTTOM LINE Jon Stewart’s featherweight political comedy is more diverting than incisive.

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