Jon Stewart who left his groundbreaking TV show THE DAILY SHOW 5 years ago to Trevor Noah, is back again in a larger format, but his sights are still laser-focused on the lunacy of the broken system in which we’re trapped.  A cross between a movie and a very long joke, IRRESISTIBLE  has a punchline that aims to spring that trap: the irresistible pull of politics and packaging which keeps us mesmerized and holds us hostage to our own addiction to constant stimulation, money, power, and their offspring racism, sexism, ageism.  Stewart takes no shots at all the easy targets who’ve either skewered themselves by their own idiocy, or have been gutted by the current crop of capable late night talk show hosts. Stewart is after bigger game, and it hinges on our understanding the game to begin with.

IRRESISTIBLE zeros in on a mayoral race in the small mid-western town of Deerlaken, Wisconsin.  A perfectly cast Chris Cooper effortlessly hits the sweet spot of yet another of his breathtaking array of characters. This time he plays a retired Marine colonel and widower Jack Hastings, a man of few words now tending to his cows.  But at one pivotal town meeting just before a crucial vote, Jack takes the mike and invokes the conscience of his community, daring them to vote for what is right over the constraints of a flawed system and the powers that be. His humble eloquence goes viral, catching the attention of a Washington democratic political strategist Gary Zimmer played by Steve Carell who descends on Deerlaken like a wolf on the hunt. After a brief hesitation, Jack succumbs to Gary’s prodding, and agrees to run for mayor. It’s game on, though who is the prey and what are the spoils remain to be seen.

The premise affords plenty of opportunity for writer/director Stewart to hilariously eviscerate the phoniness of all the trappings of a political race.  On the plane to the great state of Wisconsin, Gary does his due diligence and researches Wisconsin on Wikipedia.  Upon arrival,  he’s quickly dubbed “DC Gary” and is soon seen choreographing a politically correct arrangement of black and white cows in the background of Jack’s big mayoral announcement. He has previously presumed to remove Jack’s tie to make him look  more “real” and trustworthy than he already is. He will eventually explain the difference between “haricots verts” and a green bean. Stewart has nailed two things perfectly here, the artifice of  “optics” and a fundamental ignorance about, mistrust of and condescension to the electorate.

The race ramps up when a particularly snarky and unscrupulous republican strategist Faith Brewster shows up to help the incumbent mayor hold his seat. Rose Byrne’s brittle beauty and too sharp stilettos look even more out of place than Gary’s well-trimmed beard and smug demeanor in these environs. That they were once “involved” suggests the incestuousness of the proceedings and the lustiness of the gamesmanship. These two cuss and swear liberally at each other, and more than once their true colors are caught on live TV before dim-eyed anchors numb to their crassness as they cut to commercial break.

It’s notable that Faith and Gary never argue issues, just tactics, how low each will stoop, how big a lie each dares to tell, what weaknesses they will exploit to win over the unsuspecting townsfolk of Deerlaken who seem served up like so much homemade strudel at the local coffee shop. There’s slavish attention to election rules and super PAC money. It’s also interesting to note that Faith, though perhaps deliberately overdrawn, is no hypocrite and is quite comfortable in her own thick-skinned shallowness, while Gary hangs onto the illusion that this reality TV show of a race he’s orchestrating is in service of something higher.

And that gets us to a pivotal moment in the proceedings when Jack Hastings is flown to a fancy fundraiser in Manhattan and when he gets up to make his pitch to the crowd of swells before him, he wonders aloud about what’s wrong with the whole thing. Why should a guy running for mayor in a small town none of them has ever heard of or cares about come to them to write a big check? The silence is deafening. And we wonder, what does this mean?  How did he and we get here? Later on the plane, Carell in a brilliant bit of physical comedy almost chokes on the truth.

Along the way, somethings didn’t quite add up and details were glossed over. We don’t know much about the incumbent mayor (Brent Sexton) or why a man like Colonel Hastings would agree to be “handled” by DC Gary at all. And why don’t these two candidates ever debate the issues? And what of Jack’s stalwart daughter Diana, with a face as sunny and open as all outdoors, to whom Gary is attracted and about whom Faith snidely bets “smells like pop tarts”?  Those questions nag until the end when Stewart shows his arithmetic and it all adds up. The ending felt like a bit of a cheat, but it was a stab at resistance, a bid for our attention, to stay alert and see past the spinners of tall tales within a system designed to disguise the facts on the ground. Don’t miss the credits which are both hilarious and illuminating as they  reveal more of the byzantine web of absurdities in which we are enmeshed.  The film is a call to action, and it’s going to take a lot of resistance  if we are going to see our way out of an irresistible but losing game.