Whatever You Do, Don’t Watch ‘Special Correspondents’
Ricky Gervais’ new war-correspondent comedy is terrible
by MATTHEW GAULT
Ricky Gervais plays video games while Ecuadorian peasants choke on sarin gas. Ricky Gervais breaks into his own apartment to steal money from his shrew of a wife. Ricky Gervais, coked out of his mind on South American blow, guns down Latin American men with frightened abandon. Ricky Gervais gets the girl … who’s not his wife.
There. I’ve saved you the hour and 40 minutes it takes to watch Netflix’s newest questionable comedy — Special Correspondents. Do literally anything else with that time. Remind yourself of better days by rewatching the first few episodes of the British The Office. Ponder a happier universe where Gervais sticks to T.V. and never writes another movie. Hug your loved-ones close and reassure them they’ll never have to sit through Special Correspondents.
Yes, it’s that bad and Netflix knows it. “They’re faking war-zone reports. It’s not the worst idea ever. Wait, this just in — it’s the worst idea ever,” reads the two-sentence summary floating beside a picture of a charmless Eric Bana and awkward Ricky Gervais that serves as the flick’s poster.
Don’t say they didn’t warn you.
Special Correspondents is a movie written and directed by professional British gadfly Gervais. The film stars Bana as Frank Bonneville, a local celebrity newscaster at a low-rent radio station in New York City. Bonneville oozes sleaze, laziness and affected disinterest but he’s handsome and clever so life treats him well.
Gervais plays Ian Finch, a hapless loser addicted to video games and comic books. He’s the head sound engineer at the radio station and he’s content with that. His wife, played by Vera Farmiga, is not … and she constantly pressures him to step up, stop reading comics and be a man.
Comedy ensues when a vague conflict breaks out in Ecuador and the radio station decides to ship the two to South America to cover it. But Gervais accidentally throws away their passports, money and plane tickets so they’re stuck in New York. Rather than fess up to the mistake, Bonneville and Finch decide to fake it. The pair post up in a loft above a restaurant across the street from the radio station in call in fake stories about a real war.
The lies get out of control as the two stage a kidnapping, fabricate a rebel leader and eventually sneak into Ecuador to avoid getting caught in their lies. It’s a good premise wasted on a terrible movie — and Gervais is to blame.
Special Correspondents is an adaptation of the French film Envoyés Très Spéciaux, which follows roughly the same plot but uses Iraq as its war zone rather than Ecuador. Which makes much more sense.
“It’s real target is fame itself and what people do for a shortcut in life,” Gervais told NPR in a May interview. And in that idea is the seed of a great dark comedy, one which the French film takes advantage of. The writers of Envoyés Très Spéciaux conceived of the film after Iraqi insurgents released a French journalist they’d kidnapped and she promptly launched a media tour in order to sell books.
The two writers wondered what someone might do to attain that level of fame. Might they fake it? Might they actually try to get themself captured?
Adapting the idea should have been easy. Special Correspondents should be full of Brian Williams jokes, celebrity deconstruction and Bana ironically grinning through book tours built on lies in the desert. Instead, it’s mostly a movie about Bana and Gervais sitting on a couch watching T.V.
Ditching Iraq for Ecuador is part of the problem. Iraq has resonance and weight. Faking war reports from Baghdad and then intentionally getting captured by its insurgency would be ridiculous, dark and funny … if done right. It’d be hard to narrative trick to pull off, but potentially intensely satisfying.
Instead, Gervais decided to go the easy route and change the location of the conflict to Ecuador — a country a vast majority of the film’s Western audience won’t care about one way or the other.
The other problem is Gervais’ wife. Farmiga is always great, but she’s wasted in Special Correspondents. When Finch and Bonneville’s stories become popular, Farmiga cashes in. She cuts albums, starts a charity and does the T.V. talk show circuit. It’s deplorable.
But having Finch’s wife, rather than Finch himself, reap the benefits of his lie is a mistake. It’s an attempt to keep Finch and Bonneville likeable by mitigating their success. It’s implied that Farmiga is the real monster because she’s the one doing the exploiting. But Finch and Bonneville are just as culpable even if the film attempts to portray them as hapless goons who are in over their head.
It doesn’t track. It’s disingenuous and lazy — an attempt by Gervais to have it both ways. He wants to keep his protagonists free from scorn while still commenting on celebrity culture. Instead, Special Correspondents detours into the life of Finch’s wife just make the film dull.
That’s Special Correspondents’ big problem — it’s boring. The characters, except for luckless loser Gervais and his office crush, are terrible people. The plot takes too long to unfold and nothing happens when it does. The movie isn’t funny or smart or interesting.
It’s not even so bad it’s funny. Special Correspondents is just there — the kind of movie destined to run on TBS at 11:00 on Tuesday morning. Something to distract you while you fold laundry. A movie you forget about as soon as it’s over.
The inciting incident, Gervais losing the tickets and the two conspiring to lie to the public, doesn’t occur until 30 minutes into the film. The first half hour is all character development for terrible and unpleasant people. Bana sleeps with Gervais’ wife. Gervais mopes and wonders how to save his marriage. A fellow journalist flirts with Gervais — to no avail.
Special Correspondents doesn’t know what it wants to be. When Bana and Gervais banter, it wants to be a buddy comedy, but the two have no chemistry. When the team files its fake news stories and watch the mainstream media pick them up, it’s a critique of the modern media landscape.
But the film spends five minutes on the idea before getting bored and going back to Gervais reading comics in bed. When Gervais and his office crush flirt miserably, it’s a romantic comedy with no love and no laughs.
I’ve never sat through a film so unfocused and unwatchable. Special Correspondents is so bad that even a climax featuring Gervais high on Ecuadorian marching powder, murdering goons in the jungle, can’t save it.
Kudos to Netflix for its subtle warning.