Special Correspondents has a scale problem. Ricky Gervais’ third directorial project, made for Netflix on what looks like a tiny budget, is modestly hilarious when it keeps the story proportional to its funding. But Gervais expands his premise into an international farce with global implications, and the film’s size doesn’t fit those ambitions. In the film’s closing lines, Gervais’ character snorts over the cheapness of the film he’s in. That reflexive mockery comes naturally, given how he’s made a career out of directing mean digs at himself and his work. But the self-awareness might have been better directed at the rest of the movie, keeping the focus where it works best.
Gervais, who scripted Special Correspondents as a remake of the 2009 French farce Envoyés Très Spéciaux, stars as Ian Finch, an engineer at a New York City news-radio station that’s looking to boost flagging ratings. His boss, Geoffrey (Kevin Pollak) decides the station’s best move would be to send Ian and reckless, status-obsessed star reporter Frank Bonneville (Eric Bana) to Ecuador, to cover a violent political uprising. But Ian accidentally loses their tickets and passports, and since Frank is already on a third-strike basis with Geoffrey, he can’t admit their failure. So the two hole up in a Mexican café across from the station, run by a farcically dumb, chipper couple (played by America Ferrera and Raúl Castillo), and start faking increasingly histrionic news reports from a country they’ve never seen.
The film's scale problems start with the setup: the film portrays Geoffrey's radio station as a tiny operation with about a dozen employees, and it seems unlikely that he'd devote two of them to on-site coverage in Ecuador. But when the film's comedy is working, those kinds of details don't matter. And for the first 45 minutes or so, Special Correspondents does work well. The opening moves rapidly and energetically, with a Nightcrawler-esque setpiece establishing how Frank lies to get facts on a breaking news story, then spins those facts into sensationalized fiction for his latest news report. Bana has been stuck in grim, humorless roles for most of his career, but he excels here as the kind of merciless egotist Gervais loves to write: the pompous alpha male whose cruelty and self-interest are entertainingly pure and uncompromised. It's a juicy role, and Bana charges straight ahead with it. A comedy just about him and his ambitions would have been tremendous fun.
But Ian complicates things with his sad-sack self-pity and disintegrating marriage, taking the film into a more familiar Gervais self-abasement mode. Ian admits he's covered 25 Tours De France and four Olympics, but always from his New York home base. He hasn't traveled or lived a meaningful life. He didn't expect he'd still be working in radio at age 50. Neither did his status-hungry, monumentally bored wife Eleanor (Vera Farmiga), another brutally uncomplicated comedy type who pulls Frank into bed early in the film, then decides to divorce Ian for not giving her the fame and luxury she somehow expected from a broadcast engineer. Ian's marriage discontent is a non-starter of a subplot, and so is his nascent romance with human wallpaper Claire Maddox (Kelly Macdonald), whose primary function in the film is to be less offensive than Eleanor. But Eleanor herself is a hoot: nakedly greedy, endlessly narcissistic, and completely unashamed. It's impossible to imagine her and Ian getting together in the first place, but she'd be a strong foil for Frank, if the film didn't largely keep them apart.
Still, with Eleanor and Frank as outsized, strong personalities, Gervais playing his usual flaccid-balloon character as the butt of all the jokes (at one point, he describes his body as "25 percent fat, more than some snacks"), and the complicated comic business of the radio-station fakery to keep all the pieces moving, Special Correspondents has everything it needs for some lively humor. And initially, it sparkles, as Frank and Ian escalate their lies to avoid getting caught, and Eleanor takes advantage of their absence to push her own get-rich-quick scheme. And then Gervais suddenly pushes the action to Ecuador, which on this budget looks like it's a five-minute boat ride from Manhattan, and consists entirely of a four-shack village and a dirt road. Bigger subplots open up — Eleanor's plan goes national, Frank's deceptions have international consequences — and the bigger the action gets, the less interest Gervais has in the subplots he's spinning.
In Gervais' first film, The Invention Of Lying, he created a hilariously awful world of comic excess, then let the story peter out into something disappointingly small. Likewise, Special Correspondents keeps coming up with big ideas, then taking them to undersized ends: more insults aimed at Gervais, an extended "cocaine makes people hyper" riff, sequences that sprawl outward with the loose rhythm of improv, and no punchline in sight. Special Correspondents almost becomes a satire on the modern news media, touching on the rush to sensationalize, the lack of oversight or fact-checking, and the perils of aggregating news instead of original reporting. But it rushes past all these ideas in a gag or two, without engaging with any of them in a meaningful way. It's got the material for a bleak, black-comedy riff on Wag The Dog, but it settles for Delta Farce-level "hapless Americans in a foreign country" camp.
Much of that seems to come from Gervais' impulse to belittle himself, which he's been doing since The Office. But Gervais' hilarious encounter with David Bowie on Extras reached the absolute pinnacle of this particular form of humor, and the ongoing attempts to echo it just seem redundant. Beyond that, there's no sense that Gervais has a purpose or intent here. He just has a bunch of gags, haphazardly aimed in a variety of directions. The film has such big ambitions, and such major potential, and when it loses interest in all of them in order to focus on a riff about how spicy chili would go better with bread, it seems even smaller than it would have if it had never tried for something bigger at all.
Special Correspondents premieres on Netflix on April 29th.