Releasing a new movie at a time the world is facing enormous challenges is “like showing up to a plane crash with a chocolate bar”, as Jon Stewart put it recently.
“It feels ridiculous,” the former host of The Daily Show told The New York Times. “There’s tragedy everywhere, and you’re like, ‘Uh, does anybody want chocolate?'”
The coronavirus pandemic, coupled with worldwide protests sparked by the death of George Floyd in police custody, have left few people in the mood for frivolity.
But despite his characteristic self-awareness, the release of Stewart’s new feature film will be warmly welcomed by those who miss his presence in the US TV landscape.
Stewart, now 57, hosted satirical news programme The Daily Show for 16 years. He was a highly influential figure, attracting a dedicated audience who tuned in every night to hear his shrewd take on the day’s stories.
By the time he left in 2015 (to be succeeded by Trevor Noah), he said he was tired and ready for a new challenge. Which is precisely why he embarked on writing and directing Irresistible – a comedy about political campaign financing, as told through a small-town mayoral race in rural Wisconsin.
The film, which stars Steve Carrell and Rose Byrne, was due to hit cinemas this summer, but is now being released online instead. It may not have been the planned platform, but that’s something Stewart isn’t too concerned about.
“Obviously having a movie that you made come out online instead of in theatres is maybe the greatest tragedy that is occurring in our world right now,” he tells BBC News, tongue firmly in cheek.
“I mean, I know people are struggling with the pandemic, and hundreds of years of racial injustice, but when are people going to really think about how I feel?”
Irresistible sees retired marine colonel Jack Hastings (played by Chris Cooper) go viral after making a passionate speech at a town hall meeting in the fictional city of Deerlaken, Wisconsin.
The online video is brought to the attention of political strategist Gary Zimmer (Carrell), who travels out there to convince Hastings to run as the Democrats’ candidate for Mayor.
Zimmer sets about moulding Hastings into the perfect candidate, but as his campaign gathers steam, they face competition from Faith Brewster (Byrne), who has been deployed to run the Republican campaign.
One issue the film highlights is how much money can be spent (or arguably wasted) on political campaigns. Without revealing any spoilers, the movie’s unexpected ending is something Stewart hopes will challenge the traditional political structures we all take for granted.
“I’ve spent a lot of years detailing the daily foibles, and that’s kind of a narrow view and it’s myopic,” Stewart says. “So this was a way of stepping back and really trying to look at [politics] as a system. Sort of like the difference between being a weather man and a climatologist.
“So I spent a lot of years as a weather man, and I decided to step back and go ‘why is it always raining here? What’s going on?!’ and to look at it from that perspective.
“And the key to it is to hopefully have the audience kind of believing that they’re watching this other movie that’s buying into all the tropes that we’re given. So that when you finally reveal [the ending], you can have that moment of ‘oh right, why do we accept this system as it is currently designed?'”
‘Always room for satire’
Reviews of the film came out earlier this week, and some critics think Stewart succeeds in his mission.
“Taken on its own terms, this buoyantly funny comedy offers lip-smacking entertainment that will surprise many with its skewering of both sides,” said David Rooney in The Hollywood Reporter.
But not everyone was won over. “The supposed satirical attitude of Irresistible can’t conceal the fact that it’s contrived, unfunny and redundant,” wrote Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian.
The Telegraph’s Tim Robey said: “American politics do such a sterling job of currently satirising themselves, it’s hard to know where an electoral comedy like Jon Stewart’s Irresistible gets off in the hunt for added purchase. Watching it proves the point: the film tries to scale a gargantuan mountain of a subject, and just keeps slipping repeatedly down the sides.”
The point about real-life politics going beyond satire has been made so often in recent years it’s become a cliché. Countless writers and comedians have complained it’s difficult to make fun of a situation which they already consider to be a parody.
But Stewart thinks there will always be a place for it in society.
“[Charlie] Chaplin made The Great Dictator during World War Two,” he points out. “I think there will always be room and a need for that type of commentary.
“But I also believe that it’s the least efficacious agent of change. So while I think it will always be there, I also think it’s what you’re seeing now – direct action in the streets brings about change,” he says – a reference to the recent Black Lives Matter protests.
“Comedy bits are fun to pass around the internet, and this movie belongs to that oeuvre.”
Shooting a film is a lot of hard work, to put it mildly. Cast and crew work long hours intensively for weeks or months on end, before the laborious post-production process begins.
But asked which is more gruelling, writing and directing a film or hosting a daily talk show, Stewart says: “Hosting a show, no question. No question. You’re talking about 16 years.
“Now, if I had to work on this movie every day for 16 years then I’d probably say that’s gruelling too, but the one thing you get when you’re doing a daily talk show is it’s not just all foreplay. The film has a different feel, you’re working and working, but you don’t get that thing you get on a television show, which is the performance and the audience right there for you.
“And the reward of working every day, was the dessert of getting to perform it in front of an audience. In a film you don’t get that, but you get the quieter pleasure of being able to spend more time crafting something with a little more nuance than you might when you’re just trying to get that 6pm deadline.”
Earlier this week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced cinemas would be able to re-open from 4 July, as part of the ongoing easing of lockdown restrictions.
But Irresistible is continuing with its planned online release this weekend.
“I’m excited for people to get a chance to see it, hopefully it’ll be a nice distraction,” Stewart says. “You always design a movie for that social response, you love to see it with a group of people, but I’m also hoping that it’s pleasant to watch in the comfort of your own home.”
Irresistible is available to rent on VOD platforms on Friday.