America, the Movie, Philly/Jersey style – with “Hamilton” and “Irresistible”

Writer-director Jon Stewart’s “Irresistible” on Amazon Prime and Lin Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” on Disney+, are both touched with elements related to Philly and Jersey.

In reckoning with the reckoning that Independence Day might not be all it’s cracked up to have been all this time (really?) in the cradle of liberty, that popping fireworks is more divisive than murdering your neighbor, and – you know, COVID-19 – the only thing that looks solid and safe for July 4 and into the immediate future is cinema relative to democracy and all the things it could stand for.

This weekend, that means the Amazon Prime release of writer-director Jon Stewart’s “Irresistible” and Lin Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” on Disney+, both streaming films touched with elements related to Philly and Jersey.

New Jersey native Jon Stewart has come a long way since his days on “The Daily Show” (even longer, considering his late teens’ time bartending at City Gardens). Rather than maintain the edgy, educated poli-sci snark of his host duties on basic cable, Stewart – as “Irresistible” writer and director – finds his way, cleverly (by film’s end), around the dryly hilarious, altogether too-real topic of partisan campaign stumping.

Steve Carrel and Rose Byrne in Jon Stewart’s “Irresistible.”

With a satirical narrative often more subtle than a whispered rumor (yet still oddly managing to be screamingly heavy-handed), Stewart’s sharp, silly script offers his old “Daily Show” correspondent Steve Carrel (as Gary Zimmer, Democratic campaign consultant/spinner), “Bridesmaids” Rose Byrne (Faith Brewster, his steely longtime Republican rival) and a barely-there Topher Grace (Kurt Farlander) ample room for goofing off in the name of Chris Cooper’s Jack Hastings. Hastings is a Gary Cooper-like “John Doe,” a stoic, one-time military country gentleman filled with old school, American values freshly chosen for grooming for a small-town mayoral campaign (and all of its funding) by Zimmer. Of course, the left/right, James Carville/Mary Matalin’s similarities are played to the hilt with tense ball-breaking teasing.

Rose Byrne and Steve Carrel.

By film’s end, all of the classic American values portrayed by Hastings and his townspeople have been played for show, and turned on its head for profit, beating the spinners at their own game. While “Irresistible” too often relies on what the New York Times calls a “homespun cliché of Middle America,” and a “lecture on old news” – both true – Stewart and Carrel make a great storytelling team where satire is concerned. Picking on political satire as a weapon to make a point might not have worked as well as the filmmakers imagine as the news – real and fake – moves too mercurially quick to capture its humor without quickly dating. Still fun and funny though, with American values thrown under a microscope, its messages massaged and exploded for all of their quirk and foibles.

The quintessential immigrant tale of “Hamilton” has all sort-of Philly about it. Not only did the Army’s Senior Officer help lead General George Washington’s troops through the Battles of Brandywine and Germantown, but Hamilton also lived here while a member of the Congress of the Confederation, and during the summer of 1787 while a member of the Constitutional Convention. Plus, when Philadelphia was the U.S. capital, (1795) the First Bank was Hamilton’s idea for the nation’s immense war debt and set up shop here as Treasury Secretary, Going one step further, the Broadway singer who portrayed ‘Aaron Burr’ – “the damn fool that shot him” – and won a Tony for Best Actor for doing so, is Philadelphia-born and bred Leslie Odom Jr.

Leslie Odom Jr. and Lin Manuel Miranda.

The quintessential immigrant tale of “Hamilton” has all sort-of Philly about it. Not only did the Army’s Senior Officer help lead General George Washington’s troops through the Battles of Brandywine and Germantown, but Hamilton also lived here while a member of the Congress of the Confederation, and during the summer of 1787 while a member of the Constitutional Convention. Plus, when Philadelphia was the U.S. capital, (1795) the First Bank was Hamilton’s idea for the nation’s immense war debt and set up shop here as Treasury Secretary, Going one step further, the Broadway singer who portrayed ‘Aaron Burr’ – “the damn fool that shot him” – and won a Tony for Best Actor for doing so, is Philadelphia-born and bred Leslie Odom Jr.

With that, “Hamilton” is as much as Philadelphia tale, as it is a (forming of) Washington D.C. tale, as it is a New York tale – the birth of history, The birth of a nation. For better and worst. Your pick.

The cast of Hamilton.

Created as a live-capture film of 2016 performances of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s revolutionary musical with the celebrated original Broadway company, by its composer, book writer, lyricist and titular lead, Miranda, and his stage director Thomas Kail, “Hamilton” is as jolting on the screen as it was on the stage of NYC’s Richard Rodgers Theatre (Yeah, that’s right. I caught the original cast but once – once was all you needed to be and stay electrified). Two full performances with an audience and multiple cameras; riveting musical numbers filmed between shows captured by Steadicam, crane and dolly-mounted cameras moving through the performances; sharp, punctuating rhythmic editing (Jonah Moran of FX’s “Fosse/Verdon” fame); more close-up portraits than a high school yearbook: all of that combines, colludes and even contends in making this movie version of the hip hop musical ore alive and sizzling than its staged version. And you can re-watch it over and over in the comfort of your home or phone. “Hamilton” was brilliant then, and just as brilliant now.

Welcome, America.


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