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Special Correspondents

D: Ricky Gervais / 100m

Cast: Eric Bana, Ricky Gervais, Vera Farmiga, Kelly Macdonald, Kevin Pollak, Raúl Castillo, America Ferrara, Benjamin Bratt, Mimi Kuzyk

Comedians and Netflix – a good combination? After Adam Sandler’s The Ridiculous 6 (2015), we now have Ricky Gervais’ Special Correspondents, a movie so leaden and uninspired it makes Sandler’s movie look like a masterpiece (okay, that may be taking it a bit too far). A remake of the French movie Envoyés très spéciaux (2009), this transplants the original’s Paris-Iraq locations for New York-Ecuador, and in the process leaves out the humour that would have made it halfway watchable.

Gervais’ decision to make this movie serves only to highlight his inability to write, act and direct a full-length movie and show consistency in any one department. As the meek, self-negating Ian Finch, a sound engineer for a New York-based radio station, Gervais plays yet another sad-sack loser with zero confidence and a view of himself as a complete nobody. Gervais has played this character, and variations of it, several times now, and it’s as tired as the script he’s put together and somehow managed to get financing for. (If you really want to see just how bad an actor Gervais can be, check out the party scene early on, where it’s just him and Vera Farmiga; see how many grimaces and facial expressions you can spot that are exact replicas of the ones he uses when hosting the Golden Globe Awards… or playing David Brent in The Office.)

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Gervais’ painful attempts at acting aside, it’s his script that deserves the most criticism, ranging as it does from occasionally interesting to crudely simplistic. The basic story – radio journalist and his sound man fake reports from war-torn Ecuador – is lifted wholesale from the French original, and even though that movie wasn’t the most well received movie ever, it’s still better than the ponderous, laugh-free adaptation that Gervais gives us here. Yes, it has a predictable plot; yes, it has characters who are two-dimensional at best; and yes, you couldn’t care about any of them even if your life depended on it, but if after all that it was funny, really laugh-out-loud funny, then it could have been forgiven for all those things. But although Gervais has made room for moments that are clearly meant to be funny, in reality they aren’t, and the movie lurches from one almost-humorous scene to another with all the grace of a punch-drunk boxer fighting his reflection.

It doesn’t help that, Kelly Macdonald’s sweet-on-Ian character, Claire Maddox aside, the other characters are mostly unlikeable, from radio journalist Frank Bonneville (Bana) whose grandstanding and willingness to get the story no matter what makes him look and sound arrogant and unfeeling, to Ian’s wife, Eleanor (Farmiga), a listless shrew who only comes to self-aggrandising life when her husband appears to have been kidnapped by rebel forces. Farmiga, who has the misfortune of wearing one of recent cinema’s most unflattering wigs, does what she can with the role but there’s no subtlety in a part that calls for simpering insincerity at every other turn, and bald-faced self-promotion in between. The same goes for Bana, a more than capable actor here reduced to the role of awkward straight man to Gervais, and who has to spend a lot of screen time waiting for Gervais to deliver the comedic goods (so he gets to wait around a lot).

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In support, Pollak is the radio boss who cares about the legality of a story’s procurement one minute, but is willing to capitalise on the possibility of Frank and Ian being killed the next, while Castillo and Ferrara are the Latin couple, Domingo and Brigida, who help Frank and Ian fabricate their reports. What few laughs there are in the movie are delivered by the couple, playing a couple of innocents who haven’t quite grasped their roles in Frank and Ian’s deception. And in what must have taken him a whole morning to film, Bratt turns up as Frank’s arch-nemesis, TV journalist John Baker, who co-opts one of Frank’s broadcasts as if he knew all about the content all along (Baker is probably meant to provide an element of satire, but instead he comes across as an easy target for Gervais’ mistrust of the Press).

Of course, events dictate that Frank and Ian have to go to Ecuador so that they can “return” to New York and avoid losing their jobs and ending up in jail. It’s during this period in the movie that Gervais’ deficiencies as a director show themselves more clearly than elsewhere. Even with the aid of experienced DoP Terry Stacey, Gervais still manages to present the viewer with shots and scenes that are poorly framed, and there’s a scene with Gervais and Bana where Frank reveals a secret that is so badly assembled it feels like rehearsal footage has somehow made its way permanently into the final movie.

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As mentioned when discussing the trailer, Gervais track record on the big screen has not exactly been luminous, but here he’s come up with a project that will likely mean it will be a long time before he’s asked to write, direct and star in a movie of his own choosing once again. If Gervais has an aptitude for anything it’s for observational comedy, and Special Correspondents doesn’t fit that mold, which makes it even harder to understand why he chose to take it on in the first place.

Rating: 3/10 – dire and acutely unfunny, Special Correspondents is yet another English-language remake that shouldn’t have happened (and how many more of those will we see this year?), and shouldn’t have to be watched; Gervais never gets to grips with what his movie is about, or where the laughs should go, leaving the viewer resigned to the idea (from very early on) that this is a movie that has stalled before it’s even started.