East Coast slickness meets heartland folksiness in “Irresistible,” a political satire so broad and blunt that it flattens every joke and deflates every setup. Movies like this should skip and jab; instead, this second feature from the writer and director Jon Stewart (after his impressively accomplished prison drama, “Rosewater,” in 2014) lumbers and flails. Set shortly after the 2016 election, it feels like an artifact from a particularly contentious past, a stale corn chip trampled into Party-convention carpeting.
Steve Carell is Gary Zimmer, a smooth D.C. political consultant still stunned by his failure to steer Hillary Clinton into the White House. He desperately needs a campaign to help him recover his mojo; and when he sees a viral video of Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper), a widowed farmer and retired Marine, argue for immigrants’ rights at a town meeting in Wisconsin, he believes he’s found the perfect candidate to road-test a message that will entice rural voters into the Democratic fold.
Labeling his discovery “a Bill Clinton with impulse control,” he jets off to the economically teetering town of Deerlaken, a place where Bob Seger rules the airwaves and everyone knows your pastry preference. But convincing Hastings to run for mayor as a Democrat only motivates Gary’s archnemesis, Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne) — a Kellyanne Conway type in lethal heels and curve-cuddling separates — to pull out every stop to defend the Republican incumbent.
Attacking both political affiliations with equal disgust, “Irresistible” seems disappointingly fatigued, its glossy veneer concealing a hollow core. Stewart’s plodding script, far removed from the light-footed political commentary he regularly delivered on “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” evinces no apparent zest for its subject. As Gary herds volunteers and directs his candidate in photo shoots, the camera listlessly follows, as if responding to Carell’s unusually subdued performance. Worse, his scenes with Cooper — who has spent a career exuding low-key decency — are depressingly lacking the comedic spark they need to sell the pair’s odd-couple relationship.
Similarly, the absence of sexual tension between Carell and Byrne leaves their verbal jousts, however barbed, feeling fake and overdetermined. As compensation, Byrne (following a strong turn as Gloria Steinem in Hulu’s “Mrs. America”) gives Faith a bitingly droll politesse that tells us she has Gary’s number: She knows he’s as comfortable with his privilege as she is with hers.
In smaller parts that amount to little more than cameos, Natasha Lyonne and Topher Grace share micro-moments as a pair of squabbling analysts, and the terrific Mackenzie Davis is stranded in the pointless role of the novice candidate’s daughter, whose most memorable scene has her plunging her arm into a cow’s rear.
Trafficking in the elitism it purports to deplore, “Irresistible” presents a homespun cliché of Middle America, where Wi-Fi is like gold dust and political ads scream with flags and fear-mongering. This patronizing tone can at times be troubling: A visual gag featuring a severely disabled, robotically enhanced billionaire — a kind of Elon Musk figure called Rocketman who depends on multiple high-tech prosthetics — comes across as more offensive than funny. As does the suggestion that we should be surprised when rural voters recognize the difference between a simile and a metaphor.
Despite an occasional sharp moment (and some post-credits clips that feel more illuminating than anything that precedes them), “Irresistible” is a lecture on old news. Harping on the toxicity of an electoral system whose messages are fattened by money, shaped by focus groups and polished by pundits, its thesis may be too unsophisticated for our increasingly traumatic times.
Maybe that’s why, for me, its most indelible moment features Faith licking Gary’s face with agonizing slowness. Her action might be nauseating, but all I could think was, “Remember when we could still do that?”
Rated R for vulgar language and reprehensible behavior. Running time: 1 hour 41 minutes. Rent on Amazon Prime Video, Google Play and other streaming platforms and pay TV operators.