I know what you’re thinking. I never do film reviews. Perhaps the tone of this piece will give you a signal as to why.
Special Correspondents is a film directed, written and co-produced by forever-controversial comedian Ricky Gervais. It was released onto Netflix in 2016, and in the eternal purgatory of lockdown at the moment, I found myself looking back through some of his previous material. Sure, I’d seen The Office, Extras, Life’s Too Short (all co-written with the excellent Stephen Merchant), Ghost Town, Derek and the more recent After Life, but the trailer for SC looked fun to me; playfully safe for Gervais but nevertheless packed with his trademark cynical wit and tales of everyday redemption.
Gervais and Eric Bana play two journalists who wind up in an elaborate ruse after missing their flight to report on a war in Ecuador; themselves pretending to be hostages in a foreign land when in actual fact they’re still in Manhattan; until it all comes out in a classic tale of why you shouldn’t lie (except not really).
For a Ricky Gervais work – which often prove realistic, satirical or in some way relatable to real life – I found Special Correspondents to show an incredible lack of awareness; something the movie exhibits in as much volume as its bizarre pacing. Both of these unfortunate defects come in the immediate stereotypical ‘douchebag’ character of Bana’s Frank Bonneville – embodying the ‘maverick’ detective-wannabe who straight-up lies his way into a murder scene and sleeps with the wife of Gervais’ character (not knowing her husband’s identity but aware that she’s married nonetheless). Frank is also revered by Ian Finch (Gervais), at first, much in the way a ditsy blonde would in any 1980’s coming-of-age high school movie; crushing on the sporty bad boy because all girls like bad boys, obviously. They’re just so cool.
Bonneville is likened to Dirty Harry which, to me, feels more like a ‘tactical’ move on the movie’s part to appear self-aware than actually accepting the character’s oozing cliché. Frank acts like a smarmy git throughout the film’s entire one-and-a-half-hour runtime; without really changing.
Gervais’ Finch also spends his free time on a mobile game called ‘Rebel Coup’, conjuring flickering images of copyright boomer satire like a Vietnam movie; of a world where all kids play Angry Birds incessantly, for… some reason. Gervais’ attempt to seem relevant appears again in a later scene when one-sided characters Brigida and Domingo are talking to Frank about the Jonas Brothers, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian because they, too, are American.
But the douchebag-shaped hole isn’t filled up entirely by Bana’s character. Oh no. Finch finds himself married to an A-grade arsehole, Eleanor (Vera Farmiga), who sounds like the biggest piece of work to walk the streets; openly mocking Finch and belittling his small-if-stable career from her first scene. Oh, and, yes, she proceeds to immediately cheat on Finch. There’s no journey, or characterisation. Gervais just plonks her in as if to explain Finch’s acceptance of anything second place and leaves it there. We’re later led to believe that the couple have had some ‘good times’, but we’re starved of actually seeing any – not even some cliché flashback scene, or an overdone photo of a beach holiday. Eleanor’s first appearance leaves you pondering why on Earth Finch got with her in the first place.
Anyway, I found myself pretty bored just fifteen minutes in, which was both a shame and atypical, because most works of Gervais hit home with me. For the most part, they’re full of fleshed-out underdogs or flawed heroes, realistic themes, well-crafted humour and a happy ending that typically falls short of being just a bit too ‘Hollywood’. Examples of this are his magnum opus with Stephen Merchant, The Office – where main man David Brent shrugs off a presumed persona of being ‘cool’ and embraces who he really is; relevant all these years later – as well as Gervais’ own personal efforts in Ghost Town (though that film did suffer from some clichés) and, more recently, After Life.
The story is hard to knock, itself borrowed from the 2009 French film, Envoyes tres Speciaux, which follows two reporters covering the Iraq war despite never actually leaving Paris. It’s a funny plot with just enough complexity to be unique and credibility to be real; especially in the world today with ‘fake news’ festering on the web like a blight. Perhaps this American-English remake could have brought such a thought-out story to even better heights; full of iconic British wit and an American vision.
But Gervais’ faithful retelling lets itself down in really quite awful writing and terrible dialogue at points (such as Frank telling Finch about a potential rebel coup in Ecuador, to which Finch replies, ‘that’s funny, I’m playing a video game called Rebel Coup,’ and then gives the most cliché monologue on depression in existence). The acting is rickety at best, and Gervais finds a way to cram in yet more of his irrelevant views on the world. Once again, Ricky lets us know his stance on obesity, in case you haven’t watched literally any of his stand-up, as well as his rejection of geek culture (playing the role of that guy when someone calls Finch’s prized Marvel figurines ‘dollies’).
And that’s where yet another flaw comes in; Gervais has shown his mastery at playing characters incredibly similar to himself; exaggerating certain aspects of his mentality for the big screen. But by now it feels like all he has left in him are more Brent impersonators (which is disheartening given his recent portrayal of refreshingly complex Tony in After Life). And here, that classic British sarcasm and refusal to say what’s socially acceptable doesn’t really gel with Bana’s performance of Bonneville – often leading to punchlines that don’t really land, or dialogue that feels clunky. Another example of this comes when Finch is about to leave for Ecuador, and sad music tells us that he doesn’t want to leave fellow radio-workmate Claire; despite the fact that they’ve only been on-screen together for a minute beforehand.
It’s also tough to tell, at points, if the film is meant to be a comedy or not – and if so, what kind? Is it satirical? Dark? Off the wall? In one scene, a receptionist tells Gervais not to lose his plane tickets. Gervais as Finch then replies, ‘Why would I? What, like I lost my wife?’. The line comes out of nowhere, Gervais shows no quickfire Brent-like smile, and the pause after is too brief to elicit any real response from the viewer; certainly not one of ‘Ahaha, he made a very common scenario awkward again’, which I can only presume is meant to be the intended response.
Gervais has also become too comfortable with playing self-hating characters, I feel; as if his repeated realisation of self-worth (and helping others) onscreen allows some prophetic Phoenix complex for his ego. We barely know his character, Finch, and yet he’s already calling himself worthless – believing he is nothing – annoyingly in contrast to Tony from After Life who at least has a reason to feel that shitty the first time we meet him. Warwick Davies from Life’s Too Short starts out in a troubled marriage and dire financial straits. By the time Finch starts moaning, we’ve only really been told that his wife’s not very nice. It becomes clear that the pacing is more than a bit off, once again.
Meanwhile, I’m a third of the way in and Gervais’ tried-and-tested formula of playing a bumbling depressive is boring me. It’s as if the man kept forgetting his character was meant to be sad and had to chuck in a few reminders for the quota. ‘There, in the middle of this gunfight sequence I’ve had him glance longingly at a razor. That’s lunch.’
And yet, somehow, as much as the film gets its sense of realism wrong, or dates itself time after time in some self-fulfilling prophecy, Special Correspondents did establish itself in a kind of mesmerising limbo; where I didn’t quite know what was meant to be parodic and what was meant to be ‘real’ anymore. One springs to mind a scene wherein Finch’s wife, Eleanor (played the usually quite good Vera Farmiga) bursts into song on a fake chat show; imploring the general American public to spare a dollar for her ‘appeal’ in an ode somewhere between the national anthem and Slade’s ‘My Oh My’. It comes out of nowhere and drags on for just enough time to make you question whether you’re supposed to be laughing or staring on in a mixture of despair and confusion. Then the character proceeds to be yet more of a douchebag, shifting into a really rather intolerable antagonist for a film that doesn’t match such a precedent in protagonist, character or plot.
At this point, we’re two thirds of the way into the movie and Finch finally twigs that maaaaybe his wife isn’t such a good person; milking every available avenue for money and fame as the outside world is enraptured by the fate of these two journalists. The bizarre love story between Finch and Claire (in which the two have barely spoken onscreen at all and any skittish office flirting has happened before the cameras started rolling) develops a tiny bit and Frank grows a pair of morals when arguing with Eleanor. Don’t get used to it; this is truly the only time we see any kind of moral glimmer in Frank’s character.
Frank and Finch decide that in order to put a stop to this elaborate ruse, they must bribe their way into Ecuador for real, then head to the American Embassy, claiming to have been released, before coming back again. The pair enter a shady Ecuadorian bar where the latter inadvertently takes cocaine; before abruptly telling Frank to let him enjoy class-A drugs at least; because he has nothing left. This turns out to be an incredibly tedious instance of Chekhov’s gun for later.
Once again, Gervais’ fulfils his quota before reverting to his normal, idle self, achieving two things. The first is portraying a terribly unrealistic performance of depression and how it shows itself, as well as furthering this Frankenstein’s monster of a character; random pieces of vagueish personality stitched together in the hope of creating something original. A depressing line here, a Brentish turn of phrase there, with a cynical leg or sarcastic limb thrown in for good measure. The result is, like in the Promethean tale, nothing pretty. But unlike Mary Shelley’s sci-fi trendsetter, nothing interesting, either.
Anyway, the two find themselves taken hostage for real this time by a cartel of some sort (because that’s all that goes on in South America, apparently) and Finch finds about his workmate (and friend by now, though the lack of well-written interaction fails to support this) sleeping with Eleanor. Blimey, that took a while. But it totally doesn’t matter at all because Finch doesn’t take it that badly and has next to no bearing on the story. Nonetheless, he’ll probably bring up suicide for no reason in a later scene when someone asks him what’s on TV.
Gervais gets to do his best Liam Gallagher impression when his character gets high on cocaine again, leading to an all-out shootout that makes no sense, even by the film’s standards; it doesn’t pack the surprise action thrill of say, Tropic Thunder. It’s bland, generic, Transformers-level of mindless shooting, and by now any humour that may have been lurking in the back of your psyche over a Brit being awkward in a foreign land has been stomped into the curb from repeated use; worn to the nub. About the only line to make me laugh in the whole film was Finch loudly announcing that he’s shit himself. That’s it! The only line. In a one-and-a-half hour movie. And it’s toilet humour. I mean it’s literally a shit joke. A reflection, perhaps, of the film’s calibre, but I wouldn’t want to extract something so profound and meaningful from this piece of hot garbage.
Anyway, our dynamic duo get back to Manhattan safely, where the love story between Finch and Claire might as well be the last 5 minutes of Life on the Road (honestly – Gervais loves being awkwardly endearing over coffee for some reason), and Bonneville calls himself a ‘work in progress’ – when he still swaggers around like the same douche from an hour earlier; we get no real sense of a character evolving, or becoming a better person (except that one, small instance earlier which might as well be extremely short-term amnesia on Gervais’ part). Frank Bonneville’s a ‘work in progress’ in much the same way a construction site is when you hire annoyingly British workers and nothing really gets done for about seven to ten months.
Even the ‘big bad’ of Eleanor doesn’t suffer some satisfying comeuppance. She’s ditched by Finch but still enjoys the rockstar glamour of endless interviews and attention. Meanwhile, the two co-stars are unveiled as actual heroes to the world; champions physically and mentally when – while they did suffer capitvity somewhat – they’re really liars for still going along with it. What’s the message there? Lie as much as you want if you’re prepared to make just a little bit of it true? No smoke without fire? I wouldn’t care about some kind of message if the tension of the film’s story didn’t pivot entirely around the world uncovering this lie that becomes bigger and bigger throughout.
You know, I once wrote in a university paper that, by their very nature, every story must follow Joseph Campbell’s monomyth; embarking on the Hero’s Journey. Of encountering a problem, facing perilous trials, realising something or gaining a reward and coming back a better person. Or a changed one, at least. But somehow, Gervais’ Special Correspondents goes completely against that. It single-handedly shatters that structure with characters that stay ever in the same state and a story that achieves nothing. It would probably be impressive if the film wasn’t so mind-numbingly dull.
The movie is torturous. Awfully torturous. Every moment that approaches real action, intrigue or emotion is dashed at once by Gervais’ incessant, insipid one-liners and rehashed material from decades before. Special Correspondents was completely the opposite of what I expected from the co-creator of such seminal works as The Office, Derek, or the heartfelt After Life (about the only relief I can take from this is that the latter shows Gervais still has it in him – having been released after this film). The trailer had me pumped but the final execution was let down by countless instances of bad writing, acting, and a disjointed pace that spluttered along half the time, dragging itself out. If Special Correspondents were an animal, I would have shown it mercy by now and grabbed the nearest .12 gauge.
The reason I laud Gervais so much in this review is because, in a time where it feels like every movie is either a needless remake or unnecessary explosion fest (or both), Gervais is one of the few writers who always brings something new to the table. Yes, his characters blend pretty seamlessly into one another these days, and his tales of flawed, everyday people experiencing humanity for the first time aren’t exactly groundbreaking. In real life, he’s increasingly insufferable and even his unique blend of cynicism and observation feels forced at times. But at the very least, if I watch a piece made by him, it feels unique. Unconventional, breaking away from the status quo – even if only for the sake of breaking away. But nine times out of ten, Gervais hits it pretty dead on. He shows us how people don’t care. How the world is, quite frankly, shit, but that there are some good people in it, at least. However rare.
So to see him create something so woefully sub-par, so incredibly satisfied with never realising its true potential (much like the characters he weaves) is sad. And annoying. And very, very boring.
At least one thing about Special Correspondents gets it right, though. In this new age of constant fake news and almost inexplicable ascension to power, it’s not that far-fetched to believe two journalists could cock things up that badly. If recent events have told us anything, it’s that figures of power and presumed absolution can prove weak, feeble, and just plain deceitful. So, in that regard, the film triumphs.
Oh wait, I forget, it’s based on that French film. The plot isn’t even original.
Carry on, then.