In recent years, Ricky Gervais has often promoted himself as a take-no-prisoners comic who isn't afraid of offending anyone. He wants to be known as the guy who's courageous enough to go way too far; stepping over the boundaries of good taste and cackling with glee as people scold him for crossing a line. Here's the strange thing, though: most of his actual work – the films and television shows and hosting gigs, not the tweets or interviews - is pretty toothless. There's a peculiar disconnect between the public image Gervais projects and the tone of projects like The Invention of Lying, Derek and Cemetery Junction (all written and directed by Gervais). These are works (of varying quality) made by a man with a penchant for sentimentalism, corny jokes and earnest, gently-delivered life lessons.
So it is with Special Correspondents, Gervais' latest film (a Netflix original, which may or may not be a reflection on the current state of Gervais' career). Gervais plays Ian Finch, a sound technician who works for a New York radio station. He's collects action figures (“they're not toys, they're collectibles!”) and plays video games, which are treated as signifiers of his fundamental lameness (cue memories of Steve Carell's toy collection in The 40-Year-Old-Virgin). Meanwhile, his marriage to Eleanor (Vera Farmiga, Bates Motel) is falling apart and his career is going nowhere.
One day, Ian gets a big assignment: he's been tasked with accompanying hotshot radio news reporter Frank Bonneville (Eric Bana, Munich) on a trip to Ecuador to cover an uprising happening there (not the sort of thing most New York radio stations actually send their own reporters to cover, but hey, just go with it). Unfortunately, a mix-up leads to Ian and Frank losing their passports, meaning that they won't be able to complete their assignment. Knowing this could mean the end of their professional careers (Frank's been on thin ice with radio station management for a while), the boys improvise: they hide out in an apartment above a local cafe, call the station and pretend to deliver a live report from Ecuador (using Ian's sound design skills to create semi-convincing background noise).
The scheme works, but now they have a whole new set of problems to contend with. The station wants follow-up stories, so Frank and Ian are required to manufacture an elaborate fake crisis. It boils out of control, and soon Eleanor – who recently had a one-night stand with Frank - begins leading a thoroughly self-serving “charity campaign” devoted to bringing these brave broadcasters back home.
The story borrows rather shamelessly from Barry Levinson's Wag the Dog (even serving up a corny musical anthem that feels directly inspired by the “We Guard Our American Border” number offered by that film), but it doesn't have half of that film's wit or political bite. Once the initial joke is established (the basic idea is admittedly pretty fun), the film doesn't really build on it or take it anywhere, simply expecting us to hang in there with this shaggy dog story to the long-delayed, predictable end. That might have been an easier sell if we cared about the characters, but Ian and Frank are pretty boring. Bana's clueless and vain, Gervais is clueless and insecure, and both only get just enough personal growth to permit us to forgive their bad behavior.
It doesn't help that Gervais' direction feels so routine. He has a very basic, point-and-shoot style that's easy enough to forgive when the writing is sharp, but a script this flimsy tends to accentuate his shortcomings. Additionally, his incorporation of pop/rock songs continues to be distractingly clumsy, and the supporting characters – like the radio station manager played by Kevin Pollack (Hostage), the Spanish-speaking apartment owner played by America Ferrera (Ugly Betty) and the sorta-kinda love interest played by Kelly MacDonald (No Country for Old Men) – are paper-thin props. The film is never genuinely bad, but it rarely manages to move beyond “watchable.”
It wasn't always this way. Gervais' early works – particularly the original British version of The Office and the inconsistent but wildly entertaining Extras – have real bite; fusing absurdly funny portraits of bizarre human behavior with moments so effectively cringe-inducing that you want to crawl under your seat. Somewhere along the way (maybe when he stopped working with Stephen Merchant?), Gervais lost his touch. Special Correspondents is another disappointingly generic film from a once-distinctive talent.
Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 100 minutes
Release Year: 2016