Spoiler alert, the last line of Netflix’s Special Correspondents is a meta-joke about how much it looks like a low-budget movie, but the joke is entirely unnecessary. Based on the production values, you could already guess Special Correspondents might have been running out of money as it moved further into its shooting schedule. More importantly, though, you could also sense that the script was quickly running out of ideas.
The basic premise is that hot shot field reporter Frank Bonneville (Eric Bana) and his schlubby sound engineer Ian Finch (Ricky Gervais, who also wrote and directed) are ordered to go to war-torn Ecuador to file on-the-ground reports for their New York news radio station. Due to sitcom-esque circumstances, they lose their passports, tickets and money before ever making it to the airport. Rather than admit their failure and risk losing their jobs, they set up shop and file fake news reports from the room above the restaurant across the street from the radio station. Frank makes everything up as he goes along, waxing poetic about war cliches, and Ian uses sound equipment to mimic the sounds of Ecuador.
Their reports quickly turn into a national sensation because Ecuador actually closed its borders before any reporters could make it in. As far as the world knows, Frank and Ian are the only ones who managed to slip in, and are thus providing the only eye-witness accounts of the mounting atrocities.
For me, this instantly calls to mind movies like Wag the Dog, The Hoax and Simone, suggesting a very broad satire making light of the gullibility and stupidity of the American public. However, as the NY Times argued, “There’s nothing wrong with the type of movie Special Correspondents wants to be. The problem is that Mr. Gervais doesn’t appear capable of making a good version of it. He shows no talent for writing the kind of light, piquant dialogue the form calls for, and his direction does nothing to perk things up.” Instead, there’s just a lot of Gervais’ signature self-effacing humor and pre-occupation with fame, most directly realized here through Vera Farmiga’s never-as-funny-as-it-should-be scene-stealing as Ian’s limelight-seeking wife.
Also, Gervais fails to make the premise entirely believable. The limited budget means the only sense we get of the emerging popularity of their fake reports is through continued shots of everyone in the radio station news room stopping what they’re doing to listen very intently, particularly their boss (Kevin Pollack) and closest colleague (Kelly Macdonald, a likable Scottish actress doing a very regrettable American accent). However, Frank’s reports are such remarkably pale imitations of This American Life‘s Ira Glass on his worst day that they never truly register as being especially captivating, and there are only so many “I’m so mesmerized right now!” facial expressions for Pollack, Macdonald and the unnamed extras to trot out.
Eventually, Frank and Ian stop filing their reports, and fake their own kidnapping by terrorists, with America Ferrera and Raul Castillo’s dim-witted restaurant owners agreeing to help out as the fake terrorists. This is when the comedy takes a turn toward poor taste, which would be perfectly fine if it was funnier.
As the hijinks continue to ensue from there, Frank and Ian are bonded by the shared experience, and each learn to become better versions of themselves albeit while expressing precious little evidence of regret for their mass-deception. However, neither ever really emerges as being a truly memorable character. They, and by extension, the entire film is at its best when Ian starts riffing about something. In other word, when Special Correspondents is pretty much just Ricky Gervais doing a stand-up bit, like how bullet-proof vests are pointless if they don’t also also come with bullet-proof pants, it’s perfectly diverting and wryly amusing. Otherwise, it’s a funny premise forever in search of good jokes.
THE BOTTOM LINE
While promoting Special Correspondents on NPR, Ricky Gervais joked while laughing, “You might as well watch it, it’s free. And I’ve been paid, I don’t care if you watch it or not.” That seems to be the same level of nonchalance he brought to actually making Special Correspondents, which has an opportunity to cleverly skewer modern media and the state of journalism but rarely ever settles on a solid target. At one point, Frank and Ian watch a TV news report and crack a series of jokes about how the pompous reporter (Benjamin Bratt) claiming to be near the action and violence is actually just standing a block away from his entirely safe hotel. It’s a purely funny exchange and observation, a far too infrequent occurrence in Special Correspondents.