Saturday, April 30, 2016


(US/Canada/UK - 2016)

Written and directed by Ricky Gervais. Cast: Ricky Gervais, Eric Bana, Vera Farmiga, Kelly Macdonald, Kevin Pollak, America Ferrera, Raul Castillo, Benjamin Bratt, Jim Norton, Kim Ramirez, Mimi Kuzyk. (Unrated, 101 mins)

The 2009 French comedy ENVOYES TRES SPECIAUX, where two Paris reporters file fake reports from the comforts of home while pretending to be covering an insurgency in Iraq, has been refashioned by writer/director/star Ricky Gervais into this toothless farce that's debuting as a Netflix original movie. Gervais has always been a master of cutting and often uncomfortable comedy, so the potential is there for some scathing digs at politics and the news media. It's all for naught, as Gervais just drops the ball and seems completely lost, relying on stale jokes (a "Go ahead, make my day" reference in 2016?) and painfully protracted set-ups for jokes that either land with a thud or never come at all. Making like Hope and Crosby on The Road to Nowhere, Gervais and Eric Bana star as, respectively, dweeby sound engineer Ian Finch and arrogant, smooth-talking news radio journalist Frank Bonneville. Handsome bullshit artist Frank is the superstar reporter at NYC-based news radio station Q365, and he and his de facto sidekick Finch are assigned by their blustery boss Mallard (Kevin Pollak) to cover a brewing insurgency in Ecuador. Just dumped by his shrewish, materialistic wife Eleanor (Vera Farmiga) and oblivious to the interest of nice, mousy Q365 reporter Claire Maddox (Kelly Macdonald), Finch decides to go along, tossing his suicide note to Eleanor in a garbage truck as they hail a cab to the airport. The problem is, Finch mistakenly threw out their passports, travel itinerary, and money instead of his epic suicide note. Rather than miss the story, Frank and Finch decide to fake it, hiding out in the apartment above a Mexican restaurant that's owned by Brigida (America Ferrera) and Domingo (Raul Castillo), and is directly across the street from the Q365 building.

Hilarity fails to ensue as Frank radios in fake updates and breaking news about a rebel leader named Alvarez and all the upheaval they're witnessing. It's never specified how long they plan to keep up the ruse, but when the US Secretary of State (Mimi Kuzyk) tells Mallard to order the pair to report to the US embassy in Quito, the only thing they can do is actually sneak away to Ecuador in order to show up at the embassy. And of course, once in Ecuador, they impulsively snort some coke and end up getting kidnapped anyway. All the while, aspiring singer Eleanor is raking in the money generated by a "rescue fund" benefit single and subsequent album deal, and she's not in any hurry to bring the pair back to the US safely, especially since she seduced an oblivious Frank--who never met Finch's wife before--shortly before the Ecuador assignment. Much is made of Frank's smooth charm and rogueish good looks--is there some reason he's not on TV? Oh, that's right. Because there'd be no movie if he wasn't a news radio superstar, which doesn't even seem like a thing.

Does any of this sound even remotely funny? It's a bad sign when you're only six minutes into the movie and Frank walks into the Q365 offices and is greeted by one employee standing up and slow clapping which, of course, escalates into office-wide applause. Gervais is a smart enough writer that he's probably making fun of the slow clap, but it's already an easy target that's been mocked endlessly. The same goes for dorky man-child Finch and his obsession with collecting comic books and action figures. Where's the joke here? And on what planet would he and Eleanor ever make it to a second date, let alone years of marriage?  By the end, Gervais is resorting to mawkish sentimentality, antiquated stereotypes (why does Brigida shout "Julio Iglesias!" when she gets excited?) and an action movie finale that has Finch manning up and gunning down his captors to the accompaniment of Motorhead's "Ace of Spades." That's how he decided to wrap up the movie? How many of these contemporary "media/political" comedies have to fail before the plug is pulled on this subgenre? Remember NETWORK?  It was brilliant, outrageous, bile-soaked satire in 1976 and remains so today but young people watching it for the first time now don't get it because the satire has become so depressingly close to reality in the ensuing 40 years. Look at more recent films like THE INTERVIEW, OUR BRAND IS CRISIS, WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT, and, to an extent, ROCK THE KASBAH. These films don't succeed because today's 24/7 news media-as-entertainment culture is already so inherently ludicrous that any attempts to satirize it only succeed in stating the obvious. Why take shots at something that's already ridiculous? The failure of these other films, and now SPECIAL CORRESPONDENTS, is enough to make you appreciate the relative comedic genius of Richard Brooks' expensive 1982 bomb WRONG IS RIGHT, which still isn't very funny but might be worth studying, as its barbs have grown even more prescient with age, almost a thematic precursor to THEY LIVE in the way it predicted the future in many respects. A completely asleep-at-the-wheel Gervais can't even be bothered to try when it comes to SPECIAL CORRESPONDENTS, a film nobody's going to remember next week, let alone look back on decades from now. It fails as satire, it fails as comedy, and it fails as anything even slightly resembling entertainment, and there's an almost Sandlerian laziness to the entire project. Is there even a target demographic for this thing?  Who is it for? Why was it made? How is it possible that the creator of THE OFFICE and EXTRAS somehow managed to make an atrocious and incredibly dull WAG THE DOG knockoff with exactly zero laughs?

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