| August 3, 2020
I love Jon Stewart. He is earnest and smart and funny and on the same side of politics as me.
But he’s not a very good director.
Not everyone has that skill set. And it shows in the most basic ways. How he frames a single, a two-shot, a joke. How he likes his films cut. How he manages the visual rhythm of his films.
I also watched a silly little film from a first-time director this week that had many flaws… but this person has a legitimate sense of how to direct a movie. A couple more films and they could be completely solid. But Stewart… you can feel his intellect in his directing. This has made for 2 interesting movies with some strong moments… but if you gave Frank Oz the script for Irresistible, the movie would improve by 20% before he made any of the script changes he would make. Oz happens to be one of the modern masters of farce on film. But any other skilled director would improve the film by 10% or more right off the bat.
And part of why this directing issue sticks with me is that Irresistible has the ambition of being a modern Capra film before it turns a bit on that idea. And it has all the pieces. Carell, check. Chris Cooper, check. Small town, check. Rose Byrne, check. It’s all there. But it’s doesn’t quite work the way your movie-loving brain wants it to… knows it should.
The film needs to be close to letter-perfect in creating the very familiar film genre. It needs to draw us into the pleasure of that genre. And I had no idea what the goals of the film were when I watched it (happily). I just knew that it was taking me down a sweet, old-fashioned road I had not expected. But pretty quickly, I was finding myself trying to feel that energy instead of being bathed in it by the film.
And then, Stewart adds more elements, which are funny at moments, but don’t fit in the film. Ultimately, he decides to take you somewhere you don’t expect… but it doesn’t work for 2 reasons. First, the turn is not incredibly well thought out. Second, we weren’t drawn far enough into the pleasure to be shocked in the way a story structure like this aspires to shock.
I don’t want to say more because I don’t want to linger in spoilers.
But here is an analogy. When Psycho came out in theaters, the idea that Janet Leigh didn’t even consider that the place she stopped for the night was creepy as hell and run by a psychopath was not a laugher. We hadn’t seen what was to come in a movie before. If you do a thriller/horror film in 2020, the red flags would seem so extreme as to be funny. Modern horror films are all built on the foundation of Psycho and others. But they have to be aware that everyone else is aware of “the rules” as well.
Stewart makes it clear in a variety of ways that he knows “the rules” and he wants to make sure you are not comfortable in making the assumptions people have made in such films for decades. It’s not a lack of intelligence or knowledge. He just doesn’t have the directing skills to do it like a master, seeing every moment connect to every other moment, from start to finish.
I will offer this one example, based on the TV ads and trailers you have all seen. Carell seeing Mackenzie Davis, arm deep in a cow’s ass. There is a lot going on in that beat, which happens very early in the film. He sees a woman much younger than him, but it still showing sexual attraction. But seeing her arm in the cow seems to freak him out. But what do we now know that will take us through the rest of the movie? Is he afraid of animals or excrement or is he just a city rube? How can he have fought so many political wars and still be shy around the kind of animal handling he has seen at a hundred state fairs with candidates? Will he still be attracted to The Girl? Why does the 69-year-old military guy have a 33-year-old daughter and what does that mean about him and how he feels about a 57-year-old eyeballing his daughter? And by the way, one possible love interest in the film is 41… how does that all fit?
And it isn’t this one gag that threw me off. How does a guy who is so prepared and professional… he is the guy who knows things… show up in a town and completely miss everything that is right in front of him. No wi-fi at the hotel. HA! He landed in town not knowing that there are places in America without easy wi-fi? Seriously?
Roger Ebert used to talk about how mediocre/bad horror movies needed characters to do stupid things to keep the threat alive. Likewise here. Characters have to do things that just don’t make a lot of sense in the effort to make them funny.
Genius filmmakers can make things I would never imagine work, so take this with a grain of salt. But the two ways to go, normally, with a character who is a fish out of water is to either make that character adept at overcoming problems or completely unable to overcome problems. The gray in between those things may be realistic, but it tends not to be cinematic… certainly not Capraesque.
But the real trouble comes when the audience doesn’t get a sense that the lead character is either in control or wildly out of control. In Irresistible, it often feels like Carell is just grinding it out. And when the moments come where Stewart is going to make a commitment one way or the other, he tends to punt. Or to reverse it the next morning. So as an audience, you are never fully comfortable committing to any idea.
Stewart finally gets decisive in the third act, as I have hinted repeatedly. But by then, you don’t trust the story. You don’t much care about the characters, whether because they keep flipping or because Stewart has hidden their realities to keep the surprises surprising. And the conceptual switch is a slap in the face… much in the style of some very great films. But this feels (almost) unforgivable when it doesn’t work like a perfect Rube Goldberg device.
Which brings me back to the director. He needed someone who is a master at complicated farce storytelling. Almost no one in this era does it well. And I would blame the producers in most cases, but the excellent producers of this film are the kind of producers who support the filmmaker’s vision, first and last. In this case, too much.
I don’t hate Irresistible. But I wanted to love it. And I tried to love it. I tried and tried and tried. I laughed out loud at jokes, realizing I was overdoing it in my very own living room. I wanted to go there with a guy who I so admire and love hearing.
Please. Next time. Write a script then find a great director to work with.
There is nothing more frustrating to me than a film that could have been everything and comes up short. One of Stephen Frears’ few missteps as a director, Hero, comes very much to mind. It too was a spin on Capra. I loved Dustin Hoffman as the truly angry variation on Gary Cooper. Geena Davis was perfect for her role. Andy Garcia was right for the real Gary Cooper guy. But it was all just a step too clever and cynical to take from an anti-Capra movie to a Capra movie. Back in 1992, when I first saw the film, I thought that it was something about Frears being British and not understanding Americana. But that thought faded over time. Frears understands people. But the script had just one too many tricks, trying to make Capra modern, but losing the emotional simplicity that is so key to Capra’s best films.
Anyway… I will still look forward to Jon Stewart’s next film. I will just hope that he finds a directing partner who he trusts and can share a project with fully. Or that he proves me wrong.
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