Netflix doesn’t have many original film titles under its belt, and the ones it does fail to inspire much optimism about its future projects. Its first feature, Beasts of No Nation, earned critical praise, but that was followed by the universally panned Adam Sandler vehicle, The Ridiculous 6. It’s still early days for this arm of the company, so hopefully the streaming site will learn from duds like this one. Funny in concept, the laughs in Special Correspondents all but dissipate by the time the film makes it to whatever screen you’re watching on.
Ricky Gervais’s fingerprints are all over as writer, director, and star, but the movie, about two radio men who fake an international assignment, lacks the sardonic humor for which he is best known. That’s not to say he can’t extend his talents, and indeed, he is quite sympathetic as the self-deprecating, down and out technician, Ian. Almost an anti-David Brent, Ian is skilled at his job and has his ego in check, maybe too much so. Having run into marital trouble, he leans heavily on the self-pity, which is how Gervais normally sticks it to his characters. Ian’s not a cynical person by nature though, and the actor has a hard time finding ways to draw out the humor in him or his situation.
He does a much better job of sketching Frank, the cocky reporter played with suave self-assurance by Eric Bana. The guy’s a tool, which fits right in the Gervais’s wheelhouse. It’s partly his arrogance that gets him and Ian sent to Ecuador, where rebels have staged an uprising. Having crossed the lines of ethical journalism one too many times, his boss (Kevin Pollack) is eager to get him out of the city.
Unfortunately, Frank and Ian never make it out of the block much less the city. After they lose their passports, they retreat to a café across the street from their radio station. The friendly if somewhat dim and stereotyped owners (America Ferrera and Raúl Castillo) let the two to hide in their spare room, where out of panic and necessity they file their first report.
The movie doesn’t immediately derail from there, but it never gets past its initial conceit. Part of me expected a Wag the Dog style satire, and though the film doesn’t mount a critique on government manipulation of information and news, it does poke fun at the media arms race through Benjamin Bratt’s smug television reporter. Special Correspondents fails to rise above its bumbling characters, however. Even when Ian’s ambitious, dissatisfied wife (Vera Farmiga) leverages her husband’s disappearance for her fifteen minutes of fame, the movie is at its core about two guys who are trying to get their lives in order.
You can see Gervais try to balance plot and character, but he doesn’t follow through on either. The script runs clumsily from one goal post to another as Ian and Frank become more entangled in their deception, and they get into a predictable mess when they concoct a story about a rebel leader that necessitates them being in Ecuador. Gervais has proved himself adept at small scale serials – the pettiness of office life or the everyday drudgery of film extras; he just doesn’t tighten the screws enough when it comes to this type of high stakes plot. Things happen because the story demands, not because real situations force the action into being. When Ian and Frank need to hightail out of the country, a car, gas money, and illegal boat simply materialize. The tenuous connection between succeeding scenes are unsatisfying, and without a strong story to frame the comedy, Gervais’s jokes also fall through.
Prod: Chris Coen, Aaron L. Gilbert, Ricky Gervais
Dir: Ricky Gervais
Writer: Ricky Gervais
Cast: Ricky Gervais, Eric Bana, Vera Farmiga, Kelly Macdonald, Benjamin Bratt, Kevin Pollack, America Ferrara, Raúl Castillo
Time: 100 min
Country: United States