‘Special Correspondents’ Tribeca Review: Ricky Gervais Satire Flails, Fails

Gervais and Eric Bana gad about as phony war reporters, but most of this listless Netflix comedy’s laughs come from a scene-stealing Vera Farmiga

Last Updated: April 23, 2016 @ 6:21 AM

In his third feature as a writer-director, “Special Correspondents,” comedian Ricky Gervais goes heavy on insults directed at himself. Practically every joke that concerns Gervais in this movie consists of him making an unflattering reference to his physical appearance (“Apparently I’m 25% fat … it’s more than some snacks,” he says), or his hunky sidekick Frank (Eric Bana) making an even more unflattering reference to his physical appearance, to which Gervais’s character always agrees. This attempt at self-awareness finally feels too much like self-loathing to be anywhere close to funny.

Gervais offers up a plot as contrived as that toothy “savage grin” he often uses and falls back on as a performer. Bana’s Frank is a smooth radio journalist who can talk his way into any situation and get a dramatic, detailed story out of it. Yet he is languishing at his job along with Gervais’s Ian, who collects Marvel comic figurines and plays video games too much, which is supposed to signify that he’s a loser.

That’s certainly what his wife Eleanor (Vera Farmiga) thinks of Ian, telling him as much at a social function before he leaves her there and she falls into talking to Frank. Eleanor treats Frank in a hostile fashion, yet they wind up sleeping together. Frank finds out that she is married but doesn’t know she is married to Ian.

Frank and Ian are supposed to go to Ecuador to cover a war there, but Ian accidentally throws away their passports, plane tickets, and money, so they both hide out above the restaurant owned by Ian’s friends Domingo (Raúl Castillo) and Brigida (America Ferrera) so that they can pretend they are down in Ecuador. Frank phones in news reports by phone while Ian makes extremely unconvincing sound effects that somehow manage to convince their radio boss (Kevin Pollak), the rest of the press corps, and even the American government after they make up a rebel leader to cover.

The section of the movie where Ian and Frank are making up stories about Ecuador is low on laughs. The characters played by Ferrera and Castillo are supposed to be very dumb, and both actors gamely try to make this idiocy funny, but Gervais hasn’t provided them with enough material to do so. However, about midway through “Special Correspondents,” at least Farmiga is allowed to take over for a while, and she actually gets some laughs without all that much help from the writing.

SpecCorr_Farmiga_Macdonald.jpgFarmiga’s Eleanor is a selfish, fame-hungry woman, and so when Ian and Frank pretend that they have been taken hostage, she seizes this opportunity to go on talk shows and raise money for their ransom. With a somber face and eyes wet with held-back tears, Farmiga delivers Eleanor’s song “A Dollar for a Hero” with just the right amount of self-seriousness to make it amusing. Eleanor’s star rises as she continues to rake in money and record albums, and Farmiga scores here because she plays these scenes in a blithely matter-of-fact way, as when Eleanor calmly announces, “I have a high likability factor,” as if she were stating that she has blue eyes.

But once the narrative shifts back to Ian and Frank, “Special Correspondents” becomes mild and dawdling, even in a confrontation scene where Ian sneaks back home to get some money from Eleanor so that he and Frank can actually go down to Ecuador and sort out the mess they have made. Ian and Frank do wind up as actual hostages when Ian flashes too much money at a local bar down in Ecuador, leading to a lengthy captivity sequence that is short on both drama and humor.

Years after “The Office,” Gervais is best known now for drinking beer while insulting stars as a host of the Golden Globes, throwing the nastiest barbs he can think of and then doing his “Did I say that?” face. So it’s odd that when he makes a movie like this he abandons all sharp edges and serves up a bland, toothless picture that isn’t particularly scathing and doesn’t have anything much to say, even though the basic premise might have allowed for some satirical jabs at journalism and politics. Instead, Gervais mainly takes jabs at his own looks while allowing Farmiga to steal the forgettable “Special Correspondents” with her deadpan comic timing.