Former “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart continues to have lots to say about politics and related malfeasance, and, in “Irresistible,” the new comedy he’s written and directed (available on demand Friday) he addresses the dirty business of elections and campaign money.
The themes are superior to the filmmaking here, unfortunately.
Stewart, who directed the heavier “Rosewater,” has cited classic election films “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “The Candidate” as influences for this movie, which also suggests the rival-campaign-manager comedy “Our Brand Is Crisis.” In “Irresistible,” Stewart takes comic aim at political strategists who descend on swing states every four years to get their parties’ candidates elected, without caring a whit about the needs of the voters they hope to impress.
Steve Carell plays one such operator Gary Zimmer, a top-notch Democratic Party man. Gary emerges from his post-2016-election doldrums when viewing a video in which a small-town Wisconsin farmer and retired colonel named Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper) is interrupting a town meeting to passionately express personal support for the town’s undocumented workers.
Deeming the apolitical Jack the great Democratic hope for making Wisconsin blue again, Gary travels from Washington, D.C., to the solid-red town of Deerlaken, land of dial-up internet and high-fat dairy cuisine. He persuades Jack to run for mayor against the reelection-seeking Mayor Braun (Brent Sexton). With Gary heading his campaign, Jack makes waves nationally.
Worried, the GOP sends its own ace strategist, Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne), to Wisconsin to helm the Braun campaign. Faith happens to be Gary’s longtime nemesis and occasional romantic interest.
As Jack rises in the polls and money rolls in, both campaigns bring aboard savvy professionals and play dirty. Jack’s campaign workers, who include his university-educated daughter, Diana (Mackenzie Davis), disapprove of the nastiness and of Gary’s condescending attitude. They’re not the ignorant hicks Gary takes them for, and they prove it.
Some of the movie makes the grade. A shot of Gary preparing for his Deerlaken visit by reading Wikipedia’s Wisconsin page is amusing. A segment in which Gary takes Jack to a Manhattan fundraiser, where Jack hobnobs with wealthy liberals who can’t begin to relate to a mayoral candidate who raises cows, captures the absurdity of big-money political campaigning.
A third-act plot twist isn’t too shabby.
A closing-credits interview featuring former Federal Election Commission chairman Trevor Potter helps explain how seemingly preposterous actions in the movie are possible under campaign-finance laws.
But while Stewart delivers a solid message when depicting the corruption that occurs when politics meets money, and injects into the picture numerous worthy election-themed subjects – Super PACS, personal-data access; micro demographics; campaign-sign punctuation (“Jeb!”) – the movie is cluttered, unfocused and often unfunny.
It is flat as a satire, lacking the sharpness we associate with Stewart.
It doesn’t sizzle as a love-hate comedy, either. Until the plot demands it, the Gary-Faith attraction barely registers.
Gary’s feelings for the decent Diana receive even less exploration.
No character is developed adequately, and, among the cast, only Byrne plays her role vividly. Sadly, though, Faith is a stereotype and, with her over-the-top quality, she seems to exist in a different movie than the comedy occupied by her realistically presented fellow characters.
Starring: Steve Carell, Mackenzie Davis, Rose Byrne, Chris Cooper
Written and Directed by: Jon Stewart
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes
South Korean filmmaker Bora Kim, too, has lots to say about rotten systems, as evidenced in “House of Hummingbird,” her debut feature online Friday and at the Roxie theater’s virtual screen July 3.
A female coming-of-age story that addresses patriarchal attitudes and historical events, the South Korean drama is a subtle and sensitive winner.
Kim infuses social, feminist, and humanist concerns into a teenage-awakening narrative in this story set in Seoul in 1994, when South Korea experienced major growth and the Seongsu Bridge collapsed.
Fourteen-year-old Eun-hee (Park Ji-hoo) has a sad home life that includes a harsh neglectful father (Jung In-gi), a distracted neglectful mother (Lee Seung-yeon), an older brother (Son Sang-yeon) who beats her, and a scholastically failing older sister (Park Soo-yeon).
Sliding into delinquency, Eun-hee shoplifts with best friend Ji-sook (Park Seo-yoon) and visits karaoke clubs instead of studying. She explores her sexuality with her boyfriend, Ji-wan (Jung Yoon-seo), and, briefly, with a female admirer, Yoo-ri (Seol Hye-in).
Eun-hee likes to draw cartoons, but it isn’t until a new teacher, Young-ji (Kim Sae-byuk), comes aboard that she receives encouragement about her personal potential.
Kim follows Eun-hee through everyday ripples — a relative’s death, breakups and betrayals, a medical scare — and the enormous tragedy of the Seongsu Bridge. The latter dominates the third act.
While the plot’s a bit too slim to fill 138 minutes satisfyingly, Kim’s storytelling, though never boring, isn’t intense enough to make Eun-hee’s journey deeply moving.
But like the realistic films of Eliza Hittman, the drama presents teen experiences so credibly and gracefully, its characters and their stories take hold of us.
The movie’s vivid historical and social elements involve the human consequences of South Korea’s 1990s construction boom. The film also addresses the effects of ingrained sexism on women and girls. (Eun-hee’s unhappy mother had to quit school so that her parents could afford her brother’s tuition, and in her own immediate family as well, the brother is the favored child.)
Kim lets the actors’ faces, rather than contrived dialogue, convey what the characters are feeling, and Park is up to the task. Anyone who’s been a frustrated 14-year-old will relate to Eun-hee.
Scenes featuring Eun-hee and her supportive teacher sweetly capture what kindness and connection can do.
House of Hummingbird
Starring: Park Ji-hoo, Kim Sae-byuk, Park Seo-yoon, Lee Seung-yeon
Written and directed by: Bora Kim
Running time: 2 hours, 18 minutes
“Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things,” directed by Leslie Woodhead, covers the life and 60-year career of its jazz-great subject, bringing her peerless voice to today’s audiences.
The documentary, opening Friday at the Roxie’s virtual cinema, reveals how Fitzgerald, during her troubled teenage years, discovered her calling on an amateur night at Harlem’s Apollo Theater in 1934.
It also details her tours with Chick Webb and Dizzy Gillespie, collaborations with Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, and experiences as a Black artist during the segregation era. Fellow musicians describe Fitzgerald’s skat singing and Great American Songbook interpretations as incomparable.
The documentary isn’t stylistically original, and Woodhead’s portrait of Fitzgerald is more admiring than penetrating.
But the interviewees, who include son Ray Brown Jr. and music notables Tony Bennett, Laura Mvula, and Smokey Robinson, tell engaging stories, and the performance footage is often stellar. A highlight: Fitzgerald forgetting the lyrics to “Mac the Knife” and improvising splendidly.
Both Fitzgerald fans and those for whom she’s a mere name from the past will be impressed.
Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things
Starring: Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Brown, Jr., Laura Mvula, Norma Miller
Directed by: Leslie Woodhead
Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes