15 – 101mins – 2016
I have been a Ricky Gervais fan ever since I accidentally flicked over to episode two of The Office one innocuous evening in 2001 (long before it blew up into the cultural phenomenon everyone quotes today). I can vividly remember still being stood up, so entranced by the screen that I couldn’t turn over and literally howling with laughter.
While haters could debate whether the man behind David Brent has ever been able to top his seminal mockumentary, I have been chuckling along with his multitude of projects ever since, from stand up shows to sitcoms to podcasts I would have worn out had they not been digital downloads. I even attended his Foregone Conclusion gig at Hammersmith Apollo in 2014. Gervais has an enviable knack of riding the extremes, from controversy-touting celebrity put-downs at the Golden Globes to eye-moistening, spirit-raising catharsis in the Extras Christmas Special and Derek. Plus, that laugh!
With two films due this year, he has been incredibly productive of late. I will confess that I am more excited for his big screen Office follow-up Life on the Road (“cumin” in August) than I was for Netflix Original journalism satire Special Correspondents (a remake of 2009 French film Envoyés très spéciaux), but any Gervais is good Gervais, right?
Well, not quite. As I excitedly made my way through this stream-only movie last night, my enthusiasm quickly plummeted and was never revived. As the end credits rolled and I sat staring aimlessly into the middle distance as “Dollar For a Hero” blared out of the speakers again, I came to the crushing conclusion that I have now watched Ricky Gervais’ first unmitigated dud.
There was just a laziness and heavy-handedness about every aspect of this production. Once again Gervais has written himself an everyman role in Ian Finch (even the surname is recycled), a British sound engineer who moved to New York to make it big yet still finds himself playing second-fiddle to arrogant, blunt-tongued reporter Frank Bonneville (Eric Bana).
Whereas Gervais’ other comic creations have all earned our respect or sympathy, Ian’s woes – his “shitty wife” (Vera Farmiga) is cheating on him, he’s made nothing of his life, he’s a comics and collectables “geek” (which is surely more acceptable now than ever?!) and he still makes fat jokes despite losing weight five years ago – are piled onto us remarkably unsubtly from the get-go, resulting in a pitiful, unendearing no-mark… with “slopey shoulders.”
But at least this no-mark is amiable. Bana’s cocksure reporter is a spiteful arsehole who openly calls the recently dumped Finch an “ugly, runt mongrel who has to be put down.” Farmiga’s Eleanor is a disgusting, cold-hearted, fame-hungry super-bitch who doesn’t care if her husband is dead or alive as long as her charity single hits #1, while Ugly Betty’s America Ferrera and Raul Castillo play the most exasperatingly braindead coffee shop owners imaginable.
On paper, the plot sounds an intriguing one: assigned to cover the war in Ecuador, Frank and Finch instead fake their live reports while living above Brigida’s NY shop. But when their spiralling story leads to a national outpouring over them being “taken hostage,” the hole-digging duo must smuggle themselves into a warzone to be “rescued.” Sadly, the plot-turns on screen are as contrived and maladroit as the characterisation, with the catalyst to the misadventure being Finch accidentally binning the passports and Frank being too proud to tell his boss of a legitimate accident.
When the action shifts to Ecuador in the third act, the representation of the native South Americans is as cringingly one-note and offensively two dimensional as the rest of the film. “Rustic, isn’t it?” Finch mugs while sitting in a dive bar amidst fighting, drug-dealing and bandits. There is an awkward tonal shift akin to the woeful Simon Pegg ‘comedy’ Hector and the Search for Happiness when fact echoes fiction and the pair are kidnapped for real – before things turn a bit Tropic Thunder for a sharp-shooting slow-mo action conclusion which paints Finch as a real hero… while on heroin.
“It’s like the end of a movie,” Kelly MacDonald’s underwritten nice girl love interest says – supposedly ironically – as the screen fades to black. Yes, it is: a very trite and hackneyed one which relies too heavily on rote stereotypes and has no unique view of its own. I wanted to like Special Correspondents, I really did, but its buffoonery failed to raise a single smile in over 100 minutes – the David Brent: Life on the Road trailer managed more than that in one and a half!