Special Correspondents (2016)
Starring- Eric Bana, Ricky Gervais, Vera Farmiga, Kelly Macdonald, Benjamin Bratt, Kevin Pollak, America Ferrara, Raul Castillo
Director- Ricky Gervais
Frank Bonneville (Eric Bana) is a hotshot radio reporter who routinely goes so far as breaking the law in pursuit of a story and has a tendency to sensationalize his reports; he gets results, but as the charges pile up, he finds his job hanging by a thread. Ian Finch (Ricky Gervais) is his sound technician. When civil war breaks out in Ecuador, the two are assigned to go cover it. However, Ian accidentally throws out their passports on the way to the airport. Left with no story, and quite likely no job, they do the only thing they can think of — hole up above a local restaurant and make up reports from Ecuador. One lie begets another, and soon, the two have to fake their own kidnapping while the world watches.
The potential of Netflix as a film studio still interests me, but they definitely need to get a little more judicious about the projects they buy. They started strong with Beasts of No Nation, then went into an increasingly dire downward spiral, broken only briefly (and unconvincingly) by the barely-okay Pee-wee’s Big Holiday. Special Correspondents only continues the trend.
Most of the excitement about Netflix’s prospects, including my own, has centered on its potential to bring about a return of auteur filmmaking, and on paper, Special Correspondentsappears to be exactly that — Ricky Gervais wrote, directed, and starred in it.
And yet, somehow, this feels totally made-by-committee, a safe, predictable, surprisingly edgeless comedy that does nothing a thousand other movies haven’t already done. To be fair, Gervais hasn’t exactly had resounding success crossing over into film; he’s hardly been in any good movies, and most of his roles have been unmemorable. Still, he’s a smart guy, and he certainly has a perspective on things. I’m not saying Special Correspondents was definitely going to be good, but you’d at least expect it to be interesting on some level. I’m not shocked that it isn’t good; I’m shocked that it doesn’t even have a personality.
You could definitely do something with this premise. There’s a clear satirical angle, and there are a lot of directions you could take the story. The issue is that the movie never goes as far as it seems like it should. I’m not actually sure what it’s satirizing, if anything — reporters lie about being on the scene and make up their stories, and their superiors and the public believe them because, well, why wouldn’t we? If a reporter says he’s in Ecuador, it’s not like we can go check. Is dishonesty a problem in journalism? Yes, absolutely, but I don’t know what to take away from the story being told here. It’s surface-level criticism, neither very funny or very thought-provoking. This movie is to media criticism what “Donald Trump has bad hair” is to political commentary — blindingly obvious, and totally missing the point.
Structurally, Special Correspondents is a Coen Brothers movie, and I can only imagine what they’d have made of it. I don’t know if it means to be, but there’s something beneath the surface of this film that strikes me as fundamentally dark, and more than a bit cynical. The problem is that it’s trying to be the prototypical comedy with heart, and I think that’s the complete wrong approach to this. This movie drifts along at a relaxed pace, rarely heightens the comedy or storytelling, and approaches everything very matter-of-factly. This is the sort of plot that ought to be gradually ratcheting up, increasing the absurdity of the premise, and putting its characters through the wringer. Instead, it’s very level-headed and boring. It’s half dark humor and half lightweight dramedy, and those two halves don’t complement and enhance one another so much as walk obliviously past one another. It’s a dark movie that doesn’t feel like it was meant to be a dark movie.
In place of anything having to do with the actual story, Special Correspondents focuses the entirety of its emotional energy on Ian having to decide between the cold, unappreciative woman he’s with and the cute, funny, nerdy, devoted coworker who fawns over him for absolutely no reason (and, naturally, he doesn’t have to grow as a person in order for any of this to happen). Guess how it ends. No, guess. It’s predictable and worn, and the movie even sets it up clumsily — it’s obvious this is going to be the heart of the story a long time before the necessary elements are in place. It’s worth mentioning, also, that Ian hardly interacts with either of these characters over the course of the film. It’s just as well, I suppose; the movie immediately runs out of things to do with Frank. His purpose as a character vanishes into thin air the second the movie quits pretending at in-depth media satire.
I think I’d find it in me to forgive all of this if the film was even a little bit funny, but it just isn’t. Weirdly, it almost isn’t trying to be funny. It’s billed as a comedy, and the performances are broad in a way that implies comedy, and I spent the entire movie waiting for an actual joke to be applied to any of this. Some comedies go for deadpan humor — ridiculous things delivered with a straight face. This movie goes for playing ordinary things with a silly face. And that just isn’t particularly funny. Its biggest jokes would be minor banter in anything else; every humorous moments lands with a sense of, “Really? That’s all we’re doing with this scene?” It isn’t unfunny; I wasn’t booing at my television. The humor is just so light and mundane. If the performances were just a touch more serious, we’d be selling this as a drama.
Netflix is still in the early stages of this project; it desperately needs some sort of proof of concept, and soon. It needs to prove it can make movies that are better than, or at least different from, the ones that get wide theatrical releases. Special Correspondents does not bode well.