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Steve Carell

Chris Cooper, Brent Sexton and Steve Carell in a scene from Irresistible. Photo courtesy of Focus Features

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Jon Stewart’s late-night reign on The Daily Show lasted sixteen years, from 1999 through 2015. His bold skewering of American and world events was equaled only by Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report. Together, they dominated an outrageous corner of a unique brand of journalism.

Stewart’s first foray into writing and directing was the film adaption of the memoir Then They Came for Me, titled Rosewater (2014), a serious drama about London-based Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari’s imprisonment in Iran. Now, Stewart has turned to comedy and written and directed the political satire Irresistible.

Rose Byrne and Steve Carell in a scene from the film.

Steve Carell (Michael Scott of The Office, General Naird in Netflix’s Space Force, and one of Stewart’s Daily Show colleagues) plays Gary Zimmer, a Democratic political strategist working the campaign of retired Marine Colonel Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper) as he runs for mayor in a what is a unanimously conservative Wisconsin town. Hastings had interrupted a town hall meeting with a plea for their undocumented workers, making a case that everyone’s responsibility is “to the least of us.” A viral video brings Hastings’ plea to Zimmer’s attention. 

Coming off the failed 2016 presidential campaign, this is Zimmer’s attempt to connect with the voters of the heartland. No sooner does he set up camp than his Republican equivalent, nemesis Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne), shows up to take over the current mayor’s (Brent Sexton) campaign. It is all-out war between the two factions as the battle is played out in the national media.

Initially, there are a good number of city-folk-in-the-country gags. Seeing the entire campaign staff crammed into a car in the high school parking lot because it’s the only place with decent Wi-Fi is amusing. One particularly obvious (but admittedly humorous) moment is the announcement of the Colonel’s campaign while Zimmer is trying to get the cows posed properly behind him. Fortunately, these easy laughs are not what make up the majority of the film. Most of the real wit comes at the expense of both the left and the right and the extremes they will go to “win,” as well as a viciously accurate look at the twenty-four hours news cycle.

Steve Carell and Mackenzie Davis in a scene from the film.

The film doesn’t avoid the dire straits and financial hardships of the current Midwest.  Deerlaken has been hard-hit by the closing of its military base. There are empty shops up and down the narrow main street. Its citizens are struggling. Stewart makes a point of honoring their humanity and intelligence; it is not a long stream of hick and redneck jokes but real people dealing with difficult problems. The fact that Deerlaken’s two sides don’t rise to the adversarial levels of the interlopers shows that they are, above all, a community.

A great deal is made about the age of information. Both Zimmer and Brewster bring in droves of consultants to research, conduct focus groups, and create over-the-top advertisements. One assessment that is an example of misplaced reliance on computer analysis is the disastrous leafletting campaign that ends up targeting a convent.  

The character development is subtle but ever present. All of the characters either grow or reveal themselves through the fast-moving hundred minutes. And while much of the situation is both ridiculous and untenable — and is as extreme as it gets — the reality is never gone. The campaign gets uglier, and Zimmer loses sight of his original goal. There is a comic discussion of “they go low; we go high” as he travels further down the twisted road in the opposite direction. This speaks to the overall question of what it means to be a good guy vs. “a good guy.”

One of the main takeaways is that elections are not even about politics. They are about math. If you can’t get more people to vote for your candidate, then you get fewer people to vote for the other. This is one of the few films to deal directly with the what is labeled the “election economy” — the money that is made through the campaigns but not necessarily for them. Fortunately, for a film about a corrupt and awful system, it never loses its comedic center.

The cast is all in top form. Carell gives a nuanced performance, with the growing realty that he is an outsider and yet believes in what he is doing. One of his most effective moments is when he explains the difference in the two factions; this gleam of non-partisan passion is beautifully understated. Byrne is a bit of evil incarnate but still manages to be wickedly charismatic. Chris Cooper accomplishes in silence what most actors can barely achieve with dialogue. When Zimmer drags him to New York for a West Side fundraiser, the pain and embarrassment are only matched by the pride in his own beliefs.  

Mackenzie Davis (recently seen in The Turning) has just the right mix of ease and strength as the Colonel’s daughter, who is wary of the entire process, and whose only concern is for her widowed father. Sexton’s mayor shows that he loves his people and is as frustrated with the situation as the Colonel. The supporting cast are all uniformly good, with the actors playing the locals being particularly dimensional and avoiding caricature.  

The film’s final shift is a smart-one and an incredible “ah-hah” moment — one that resonates in ways that will keep you thinking for quite some time. It raises very serious questions about the structure and value of the United States’ election process. And make sure to watch through the cunningly clever credits as well as the exit interview Jon Stewart conducts with Trevor Potter, former chairman of the Federal Election Commission. Though light in tone, its message is clear and drives home the questions raised in the film’s final act.

In short, Irresistible is very entertaining, with a big heart but an even bigger brain. You can watch it for the laughs but you will leave it with an education. Rated R, the film is now available On Demand.

Photos courtesy of Focus Features

Steve Carell takes another spin in the boss's chair as Gen. Mark R. Naird in the new Netflix series. Photo by Aaron Epstein/Netflix

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Steve Carell and Greg Daniels, creators of the landmark American version of The Office, have reteamed for the Netflix series Space Force. The ten episodes follow General Mark Naird (Carell) as he is appointed head of the newly minted U.S. military branch Space Force. Naird (yes, to sound almost — but not quite — like “nerd”) moves his family to White Horse, Colorado. The action jumps forward a year with a plot driven by the unseen and unnamed United States president’s desire to have “boots on the moon.”

It is revealed that Naird’s wife (Lisa Kudrow, giving a strangely middle-of-the-road performance) is in prison, serving forty years.  The reason is never revealed; this is just one of many threads that are introduced and then abandoned. Naird is now fully responsible for his teenage daughter Erin. Dianna Silvers plays the girl in a constant state of petulance; the actor, at twenty-two, does not pass for a high school junior.

Naird’s foil is John Malkovich’s scientist Adrian Mallory, a voice of reason. Malkovich gives a wry and restrained performance which generates contrast with the parade of over-the-top military and government figures. However, his relationship with Naird doesn’t so much progress as it shifts when it is convenient to the plot. Sometimes, it seems that Carell and Malkovich are in a rather strained astral buddy comedy. The inconsistency in the writing for Malkovich/Mallory only gets by because of the actor’s ability to make eccentrics accessible.  

Much of the topical humor is given to Ben Schwartz as F. Tony Scarapiducci (who has an unprintable nickname) as the social media director. Schwartz is channeling his intentionally insufferable Jean-Ralphio from Parks and Recreation.  

Naird’s nemesis is Air Force General Kick Grabaston. Noah Emmerich plays him like every bullying university president trying to shut down the partying fraternity.  

Tawny Newsome does her best with Captain Ali. Initially, she seems peripheral but eventually becomes more central to the story. Her growing romance with likable Jimmy O. Yang’s Dr. Kaifang is sweet but either predictably clumsy or clumsily predictable.

It seems that Carell and Daniels did not establish a unifying style and tone. It wants to be satire but tips towards spoof. There are thin political jokes that are low hanging fruit, with easy jabs at current politics. There is a less than thinly veiled congressional hearing that climaxes with Naird giving a touching speech about the importance of humanity in the space race. This is juxtaposed with characters that are poorly concealed imitations of contemporary legislators.  

Political satire can be done outrageously and hilariously without losing its edge; Veep showed this. Here, the creators seem to be hedging their bets. Is it Michael G. Scott Goes to the Moon? Or Airplane III: Team Lunar? Does it aspire to be Dr. Strangelove Redux? Yes, it is all of these — sort of. There are shades of sentimental dramedy exploring the difficulty of being a single parent. It is a send-up of all things media. Basically, Space Force is a watered down version of a whole range of tropes and genres.  The result is light beer and water — all the same and less.

By not committing to a style, it becomes a string of set-ups for either ridiculous jokes (uniforms designed by the First Lady) or instants of great introspection, capped off by earnest speeches. Instead of character development, there is “The Monkey Episode,” “The Washington Episode,” “The Lunar Habitat Episode,” etc. It all feels vaguely sitcom. Eventually, the stakes are raised but, by then, it is too late.

There are many well-known television actors filling out the ensemble. Don Lake plays the one-star general who serves as Naird’s dogsbody; it’s the same bumbling, amusing performance that he has given in the Christopher Guest movies. Patrick Warburton, Jane Lynch, Diedrich Bader, and Dan Bakkedahl are various members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: They’re gifted actor/comedians saddled with toothless caricatures of all that is wrong in government. Kaitlin Olson (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) appears in one episode as phony Edison Jaymes, a character suggested by Elon Musk. This was Fred Willard’s final appearance; he plays Naird’s confused father in his usual whimsical style; it is a bit hard to swallow as it is really a dementia joke.

Carell is the creator and star and obviously driving force behind Space Force. He is an actor who is long on charm and has done both exceptional comedic and dramatic work.  However, it seems that he is trying to draw equally from both wells. 

What made The Office’s Michael Scott work was that he was a buffoon but consistent onto himself. He made excruciating decisions but they came from a lack of true self-awareness.  Scott was wholly human in a mundane world.  Here, Carell seems to have taken elements of Scott and grafted them onto the gravel-voiced Naird, but they haven’t fully taken. Is he a buffoon? Are the monkeys running the circus? Too many questions and very few answers.

By the end, he seems to have “grown” but it seems strained. The final episode is a horrifying and ugly mismatch of tones — when is attempted self-immolation ever funny? — and ends annoyingly, ridiculously incomplete.  

There is a moment in episode three where, with great exasperation, John Malkovich labors up and down staircases; he moves quickly but jerkily. In essence, that is the entire Space Force series: it moves forward with purpose but not without a great deal of frustration.