There comes a time in every middle-aged male comedian’s life, apparently, when he must play a character that reclaims his manhood by trading in his shrew wife for a more docile, preferably younger replacement. The clock has struck for Ricky Gervais, who directs himself in the vacuous black comedy Special Correspondents. A shrugging surrender to formula and an irredeemably botched media satire, the Netflix feature (available Friday) is Gervais at his most out of touch — and we’re talking about a grown-ass man who makes fun of the developmentally disabled with a slur that’s patently offensive to two separate groups of disadvantaged people.
Special Correspondents is a pile-up of preposterousness, a caricature of an easy target that Gervais still can’t manage to see the outlines of. Sound technician Ian (Gervais) and news radio host Frank (Eric Bana) are assigned to cover an emerging war in Ecuador on the ground by their NYC station when Ian, distracted by his wife Eleanor’s (Vera Farmiga) decision to leave him, accidentally chucks their passports into a garbage truck. Instead of informing their boss (Kevin Pollak) about their fuck-up, the pair decide to fake their war segments from the café across the street from the radio station (WHAT COULD GO WRONG?), going so far as to create a rebel leader to report on.
With the help of the café’s conveniently Ecuadorian owners (America Ferrera and Raúl Castillo), their phony reportage — which sounds like nothing on broadcast — has the rest of the news establishment offering “insights” into the leader’s motives and tactics. The journalistic malpractice wrought by the nebbish and the hunky celebrity (because this is an alternate universe where radio stations have unlimited news budgets and announcers are famous) eventually mushrooms to include their sham kidnappings. When the White House sends troops to Ecuador to find the two, Ian and Frank sneak into the war-torn country to be rescued, with predictable results.
The confident punditry about the made-up insurgent and the shiny commodification of grief and concern that Eleanor orchestrates around Ian and Frank’s disappearance are sharp enough parodies. But too much else rings false, from Eleanor launching a hit career as a singer thanks to her husband’s kidnapping to the discomfiting reality that we as a society don’t care enough about vanished reporters. And the film isn’t actually invested in journalistic integrity; the point of the movie isn’t the importance of honesty; it's for Ian to man up and dump his sleazy wife, who sleeps with Frank in an early scene. Waiting in the wings is Claire (Kelly Macdonald), the kind of fantasy woman who watches dudes play video games with a besotted grin.
Driven by will-he-or-will-he tension, Gervais’s script at least contains a few moments of dryly amusing meanness, as when Eleanor and Frank argue who’s worse: the married woman who has a one-night stand, or the guy who knows she’s married and sleeps with her anyway. But it’s mostly loaded with stupidities, from the unconvincing attempt to make sound design cool to the ludicrous assertion that a childless couple living in a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan on one income constitutes existential failure rather than a Nietzschean triumph of the will.
Special Correspondents is also about as anonymous as a feature can look; Netflix seems to have inadvertently made its first made-for-TV movie. That seems off-brand for a company that, with a cinematic gem like Beasts of No Nation in its crown and a highly watched shopping spree at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, wants to establish itself as a service that competes visually with theater offerings. More fundamentally, the film can’t get Ian and Frank, who spend nearly the entire film together, to jell as buddies.
Not everything is news, and there’s certainly no need to see this dispatch from up Gervais’s bum.