Eric Bana film

SPECIAL CORRESPONDENTS Review: Ricky Gervais Stops Trying

Monday, May 02, 2016 Rob Samuelson

Special Correspondents

Director: Ricky Gervais
Writer: Ricky Gervais
Starring: Ricky Gervais, Eric Bana, Vera Farmiga, Kelly Macdonald, America Ferrara, Kevin Pollak
Rating: One and a half stars out of five
Available now on Netflix

At his best, Ricky Gervais (the British version of The Office, Extras) can do two seemingly paradoxical things simultaneously. He builds empathy for his characters, many of whom are simply trying their best. But he also does not shy away from their faults. Many of his characters, like Extras' Andy Millman, are clumsily stumbling their way through life with petty-but-understandable selfishness. Others, like Gervais's star-making turn as The Office's branch manager David Brent, combine hubris and a lack of self-awareness to generate cringing comedy, even if somewhere beneath the offensiveness lies someone with a good heart. Most importantly, Gervais's best stories don't let their characters off the hook for their missteps. This is what makes them human and it is what allows an audience to see themselves in these characters.

That has changed with Gervais's newest feature film, Special Correspondents. Produced by Netflix, the movie follows the adventures of a pair of third-rate New York City news radio employees as they fabricate coverage of a South American revolution rather than admitting to their boss (Kevin Pollak) that they lost their tickets and passports on the way to the airport. Gervais is the bumbling-but-kind-hearted Ian, a geeky sound engineer and the movie's primary source of false sympathy. Eric Bana (Star Trek, Munich) is Frank, a handsome, immoral reporter who glides through life on his charm and looks without putting in the effort to be a real success – this fills him with seething resentment for his place in the world and everyone around him. The two set themselves up in an apartment across the street from their radio station and begin broadcasting cluelessly fake reports about the goings-on in a war-torn country they are thousands of miles from. The lies spin out of control, creating what should be both a satire and a farce.

Gervais, who wrote and directed Special Correspondents, gets off on the wrong foot by refusing to portray these unethical, fraudulent men as what they are. They swindle their employer. They lie to their friends and coworkers. They use the apartment of a pair of immigrant rubes (played by Ugly Betty's America Ferrara and Raúl Castillo, directed to be little more than dim-bulb caricatures of Latinos) as a hideout. Worst of all, they ride a wave of financial goodwill from listeners whose hearts are touched by Ian and Frank's faked kidnapping by a fictional drug lord. Instead of rolling with these ingredients to spin a satire about media greed and manipulation, Gervais enables and forgives Ian and Frank's faults at every opportunity.

As far as the movie is concerned, its protagonists are never culpable for any of their breaches in professional or interpersonal ethics. This could easily have been the film's point, and it would have been a worthwhile one. But Gervais doesn't make the point that crummy people win because they lie, cheat, and steal their way to the top. He's too concerned with making the audience like these shallow characters, who are shockingly devoid of humorous banter in what is ostensibly a comedy. Gervais habitually injects Dickon Hinchliffe's puffy, saccharine score to hoodwink the audience into pitying Ian, who just can't help his transgressions because of his mean and fame-seeking wife (sadly played by the so-much-better-than-all-of-this Vera Farmiga). She uses her unloved husband's fake kidnapping for her own gain, performing a song she wrote for the “kidnapped” characters on live television and becoming a national sensation in the process, while Ian's also-way-out-of-his-league work crush, Claire (Kelly Macdonald), watches, too polite to speak up.

The characters are as broadly drawn as possible. Gervais's writing lacks any specificity, instead relying on surface observations about the world. Ian, who Gervais should be closest to, given that he wrote, directed, and performed the guy, feels free of any real lived human experience. When trying to deepen Ian's character, he includes his interest in video games and comic books. While walking past a comic book store, Ian says that, because he collects comics, he knows Amazing Spider-Man #14 (the introduction of the hero's arch enemy, the Green Goblin) is “a good one.” No talk about how the issue means anything to him, nor any passion (nor understanding) in his voice when describing it. A quick Google search is all one needs to know that issue is one of the most valuable in the world, and a quick Google search is all it seems Gervais did. The same goes for Ian's collection of “rare” comic book figurines, all of which the camera shows to be the same recent mass-produced figures you can get at any Toys “R” Us. It's sloppy. The other actors have it even worse, because none of them even get a lazy character-building moment the way Ian does.

But Special Correspondents' biggest mistake comes early in the movie. Frank makes a choice that would have wide-ranging consequences for any other story, a betrayal of Ian. It could have been the emotional lynchpin of these characters' arc, moving them from a pair of coworkers who barely tolerate each other to a truly bonded pair of friends. Forgiveness on Ian's part and contrition on Frank's part would have been necessary – you know, human emotions. Instead the movie gives Frank a free pass right away by making him unaware of any betrayal, registering whatever guilt he feels later ineffective at best and unbelievable at worst.

Many of these criticisms would be rendered moot if the film had enough jokes to coast to the finish line. Unfortunately, that's not the case, either. The closest it gets to laughs is when Frank describes Ian as a “bumbling little fool.” This is not the height of laugh-so-hard-you-cry comedy, but it is enough to land a quick chuckle. Other moments, like the song Farmiga's character sings during a TV fundraiser for ransom, come off as earnest attempts at pathos rather than anything resembling funniness.

Late in the movie, Ian and Frank find themselves unable to continue fabricating their story. They are forced to actually head to South America, where they get kidnapped for real. Their internment revolves around “there's no toilet in here” jokes and bad impersonations of people on cocaine. The escape adds another layer of flat filmmaking to the equation, with a shootout sequence that is about as thrilling as a midday nap and as visually accomplished as a gray t-shirt.

And once everything gets resolved, there is no karmic punishment for anything. Nobody learns a lesson. Nearly everyone ends up better than they were when the movie began. Again, that could have been Gervais's point. But the Special Correspondents' compulsive need for its characters to be likable suggests it, and its writer-director, thinks these people went on an emotionally satisfying journey. Gervais forgot the lessons of his own early work and lets Ian and Frank feel like they're all right human beings in the end. It's an unentertaining sham.

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