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It’s never fun watching a comedian’s shrewdness ossify into shtick. Yet whatever incisiveness Ricky Gervais once had (and he had plenty, if The Office and Extras are any indication) is barely evident in the new Netflix-released satire Special Correspondents (premiering first at the Tribeca Film Festival). To say this lampoon of the current political and media landscape doesn’t reach the mountainous heights of Dr. Strangelove or Network is to presume it even makes it to base camp. The film is so cheap-looking and cut-rate that Gervais makes note of the fact in the last lines of dialogue.
It takes a long hour-and-a-half before we get to that revelatory point, the better (meaning worse) to bask in the ultra-contrived circumstances involving uber-attractive radio news reporter Frank Bonneville (Eric Bana) and eternal schlub techie Ian Finch (Ricky Gervais). They’re tasked by their scold of a boss (Kevin Pollak) with covering a potentially war-torn situation in Ecuador. But the half-witted Finch accidentally throws away the tickets and passports. Fearing they’ll be fired, the duo ensconce themselves in the attic of the two Hispanic restaurateurs (America Ferrera and Raúl Castillo) across the street from their New York office. (Toronto none-too-convincingly stands in for the Big Apple.) There, Finch uses his sound recording technologies to fake reports from abroad. And soon enough, these bogus dispatches have the world’s attention.
The premise has promise, yet in execution it’s resoundingly unfunny. Bonneville and Finch are a little bit Laurel and Hardy, filtered through Gervais’ typically mordant, insult-prone style of comedy. So the good-looking one keeps poking and prodding at the homely one, who mainly agrees with the assessment. Non-begrudgingly bemoaning his lot in life is, for a Gervais character, the ultimate defense mechanism. This worked in The Office and Extras because both David Brent and Andy Millman were fully realized losers. Finch is leftovers from a meal long-gone stale, his varied traits — like childishly collecting Marvel comics merchandise or being an unwitting object of disdain for his hateful wife Eleanor (Vera Farmiga) — all lazy shorthand for failure. (That makes his half-hearted, last-act redemption all the more deplorable.)
Bana doesn’t fare that much better, though he at least makes the most of his stock asshole role. Even the way Bonneville puts on a pair of sunglasses manages to be both repellent and alluring — the egotistical alpha-male you can’t help but be drawn to. But the only performer who really manages to raise the bar, even if only slightly, is Farmiga as the narcissistic Eleanor. As the plot spins more and more out of control (in order to maintain their cover, Bonneville and Finch concoct a sham terrorist kidnapping, and eventually sneak their way into Ecuador to fake their escape), Eleanor uses the increasing publicity to her own benefit, crooning a patriotic ditty and hawking herself on the talk-show circuit. An all-too-brief photo-shoot montage, in which Farmiga struts around and strikes disingenuous power-woman poses, is as close as this sorry affair comes to hitting the targets it otherwise spectacularly misses.
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Tribeca Talks After the Movie)
Production companies: Bron Studios and Unanimous Entertainment
Cast: Eric Bana, Ricky Gervais, Kelly Macdonald, Vera Farmiga, Kevin Pollak, America Ferrera, Raúl Castillo
Writer-director: Ricky Gervais
Cinematographer: Terry Stacey
Editor: Nicolas Chaudeurge
Music: Dickon Hinchliffe
Not rated, 101 minutes
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